Alchemy and Personal Transformation – Ralph Metzner




Special Issue on shamanism and

vol2. No. 4. 1981


Ralph Metzner – Blog

Wikipedia – Who is



In the following essay written
for The Laughing Man, Dr. Metzner presents an overview of
the near-extinct, medieval European magical practice that
was the primitive precursor to modern science. The practice
of alchemy, suggests Metzner, is actually an evolutionary,
spiritual system -a practical, yogic technique of personal
transformation. Derived from such diverse sources as Chinese
Taoism, Christian gnosticism, Hermetic philosophy, and
shamanism, alchemy echoes many of the magical themes
elsewhere addressed in this issue: the spiritual death and
rebirth of the magicianhealer, the wielding of elemental
powers and healing properties, cooperation with Nature’s
laws as the key to transformation, and a worldview in which
matter is approached as an immense, responsive, and living

is a tradition, a teaching, that has a reputation of being
very obscure, mysterious as well as mystical. Among many
people trained in scientific attitudes and beliefs, the
general assumption is that alchemy is a kind of regrettable
medieval superstition, related to prescientific notions and
practices of magic and occultism-a superstition that had one
good outcome in that it led to the experimental research of
modern chemistry. Following the investigations and writings
of modern students of esoteric philosophy and comparative
religion such as Arthur Edward Waite, Titus Burckhardt,
Mircea Eliade, and above all Carl Jung and his followers
(such as Marie-Louise von Franz), we must now recognize
alchemy for what it actually is and always has been-a
practical, yogic teaching of personal transformation and the
evolution of human consciousness. In particular, credit must
go to Jung, four of whose collected works are devoted to
alchemy, for establishing and documenting convincingly that
the alchemists’ experiments were conducted primarily in the
sphere of consciousness and that the alchemical literature
represents a veritable treasure trove of archetypal material
from the deeper strata of the collective

The word “alchemy” has been given
two different etymological derivations. Some authorities
derive it from the Arabic al-kimiya, which in turn is based
on khemia, the Greek name for Egypt, “the black land”; the
ancient Egyptians’ name for their country was Kh’mi, “the
black earth.” So, al-kimiya would then be a term signifying
“the Egyptian teaching,” or “the Egyptian art,” or “the art
of the land of the black earth.” An alternative derivation
of the word relates it to Greek khumos, meaning “chyme” or
“juice.” This provides an obvious connection to chemistry as
it is usually conceived. Both of these derivations are
interesting in that the teachings of alchemy do relate very
much to “water” and to “earth,” to fluid and substance, as
substrates of the living processes of Nature.

The historical development of the
alchemical tradition represents a complex interweaving of
strands from many cultures, using many languages: Shamanic
practices of ecstasy; Egyptian mining and metalworking
crafts; classical Greek, Latin, and Judaic mythology;
Mithraic, Orphic, and Eleusinian Mystery teachings; Chaldean
and Babylonian astrology; the Hermetic literature (which can
be considered the philosophical, rather than applied,
experimental, or practical basis of alchemy); esoteric
Christian, especially
doctrines; the Kabbalah; Islamic Sufism; as well as traces
of or parallels to Indian yoga, Chinese Taoism, and other
oriental traditions. Classical Greek philosophy contributed
in major ways to the development of alchemical teachings,
especially through the doctrine of the four elements, which
in turn became, during the Middle Ages, the foundation of
medical practice and temperamental psychology through the
theory of the four humors. The Hermetic alchemical
philosophers interacted vigorously with and contributed to
the development of Christian theology and mysticism. This is
most clearly seen in schools such as the Rosicrucians and
the Freemasons, and in individuals such as Thomas Aquinas,
Jacob Boehme, John Dee, Francis Bacon, and Paracelsus. For
devout Christians, including many alchemists, the search for
the philosophers’ stone, or tincture of immortality, became
synonymous with the quest for union with Christ. And the
extraction of gold from ore was analogous to the
purification and extraction of spiritual
Christ-consciousness from the dense corporeality of the
physical matter-body. In addition, alchemy and its sister
science astrology were subjects of absorbing interest to the
founders of the scientific methodGalileo, Kepler, and Newton
(whose extensive alchemical notebooks have recently been
published by Dobbs). The use of mythological symbolism by
the alchemical philosophers must be understood as coded
wisdom teachings pertaining to the perennial philosophy and
the evolution of consciousness from animal to human to

It is important to remind ourselves
that the alchemical teachings developed at a time and in a
cultural context in which Descartes’s sharp conceptual
division of the world into res extensa and res cogitans did
not yet exist. Not that the ancients did not know the
difference between consciousness and matter, but that
somehow the distinction or separation was not as rigid and
definite as it has since become. This can tend to make it
quite difficult for the modern mind to think in the same way
as the ancient mind. Jung repeatedly stresses the point that
the alchemists “projected” unconscious psychological
contents onto matter-a position for which he has been taken
to task by Burckhardt. It is true that the term “projection”
already implies a degree of separation, a gap to be crossed,
that did not exist for the alchemists and mystics of
antiquity. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that for
alchemy, the internal world of consciousness and the
external world of physical matter were experienced as a
continuum, interrelated and interwoven. In this way, an
“experiment” was also an “experience”-something is
experienced “in here” as well as being observed “out there.”
It is fascinating that the French language still preserves
the connection between experience and experiment in that the
same word, experience, serves for both.

1. This is the sense
demonstrated by modern students of comparative mythology,
including Eliade, Zimmer, Campbell, and again of course

So the alchemists, preparing
chemical solutions in their vats or metallic mixtures in
their furnaces and observing the progress of the material
transformations, were simultaneously experiencing internal,
visionary, psychic, altered states of consciousness. Some of
these may even have been psychedelic experiences induced by
involuntary or intentional absorption or ingestion of
psychoactive gases, plants, or minerals.

Chemical experimentation was like
tantric yogic ritual: slow, deliberate, with a maximum of
empathic awareness and sensitivity to the changes in matter
rather than the kind of detached, quantitative,
observational rigor that we have come to associate with
experimental methodology. The science of consciousness
transformation was practiced simultaneously and
synchronistically with the science of metallic or chemical

Alchemy may be regarded as the
qualitative, psychological, introverted spiritual component
of what was once an integrated “natural philosophy,” from
which chemistry later emerged, limiting itself to
quantitative, physical, extroverted observation. In a
parallel fashion, astrology (which described the
synchronistic relationship of planetary forces to natural
and psychological events and patterns on Earth) was
separated from astronomy (which confined itself to the
increasingly precise measurement and observation of
celestial objects and events “out there”). A further
parallel might be made in the relationship between
numerology, the psychological, symbolic approach to numbers,
and orthodox mathematics.

The alchemical
philosopher-scientists approached physis, or matter, with
the reverence and awe due an immense living being. They
approached matter as Terra Mater, Earth Mother, like the
shaman smiths of the Bronze Age, studying and worshipping
her infinite mysteries. In so doing, they departed from the
abstract speculations of the Greek philosophers such as
Demoeritus, whose atomic theory foreshadowed modern
conceptions of matter as composed of lifeless particles.
They also countered the orthodox Christian view which
regarded matter somehow as tainted, corrupt, or fallen, much
as the physical body of man was regarded as sinful or even
evil. To the orthodox Christian, Satan was the “Prince of
this World,” whereas to the alchemist, Earth was the mother,
the virgin, the nourisher.

Everything starts, in alchemy, with
the prima materia, the primal mother matter, the ground of
being, the matrix out of which the elements differentiate.
This is the mulaprakriti, or root substance, of the Indian
philosophers, out of which the three gunas, or fundamental
qualities, are formed. Psychologically, in Jungian terms,
this is the primal, deepest level of the collective
unconscious, out of which, in an individual, the four
functions, corresponding to the four elements,

In this primal state, the elements
are in chaos, turmoil, a massa confusa. There are graphic
alchemical drawings and woodcuts that portray the original
chaos of unformed consciousness: huge, fiery, billowing
clouds, smoke, gigantic boulders bouncing around, the
Zodiacal animals (symbolizing aspects of our personality)
fighting one another. This is the chaotic condition of man
in the ordinary, pre-philosophical, prealchemical state:
internal conflict, struggle, chaos, darkness, confusion. One
of the objectives of the opus, the alchemical work, is to
bring harmony and order out of this chaos.

To accomplish this, one of the
essential operations used in the opus is separatio, the
separation of the elements as a prerequisite to their
unification. Paracelsus says: “The impure, animate body must
be purified through the separation of elements, which is
done by your meditating on it.” Through internal observation
of our own imaginal thought processes (what Jungians call
“active imagination”), we become aware of the distinguishing
features and characteristics of the constituents of our
psyche. We recognize the solid, dense, chunky “earth” of
bodily structurebone, muscle, tissue, joint, flesh. We
experience the wave-like fluidity of “water” as we swim in
our inner sea, the mare nostrum of blood, lymph, humor,
hormone and the associated feelings. With “air” we encounter
the gaseous state, the uprising breath, with its expansive,
dispersing motion, inspiration, ideas, conceptions, thoughts
that fly like the wind. With “fire” we sense the electricity
of our nature, the nervous vitality, the sparking, flashing
of perception, intuition, imagination. Alchemy is
experiential psychophysiology, the consciousness of
biochemistry, the physiology of consciousness in reverse. It
is psychophysiology from the inside, using symbols, myths,
and chemical procedures to describe one’s

One of the most significant clues
provided by the alchemists in their deliberately veiled and
symbolic language is the repeated indications that the
athanor, the vessel or furnace in which the alchemical work
is carried out, is none other than the human body. Like
their Tantric counterparts in India and like the Taoists in
China, the European alchemists recognized and understood
that the process of psycho-spiritual evolution or
enlightenment takes place within the

The alchemical practices symbolized
as separation and transmutation of the elements (which are
comparable, in modern terms, to meditative approaches to the
internal functions and processes of the body-mind) can be
understood to have quite profound implications for
psychosomatic healing, particularly selfhealing. The
alchemical doctrine of the elements gave rise to the
theories of the four humors, which dominated Western
medicine and the psychology of temperament for about 1,500
years.3 The humors are fluids and may be
considered to be four sub-varieties of the “water” element.
In modern terms they correspond probably to fluid systems
such as blood, lymph, gastric secretions, and endocrine
hormones. More precisely, we should say they correspond to
these varieties of fluids as experienced, i.e. in
consciousness. Balancing the humors (transmuting the
elements from impure to pure, to a state of harmonious
integration) therefore means to consciously blend the
internal psychosomatic processes via meditation. This leads
to temperamental “good humor,” to health and well-being, to
longevity through the reduction of stress reactions and
nervous tension, and to a more harmonious interaction among
the psychological functions of thought, feeling, sensation,
and action.

2. See “Taoist Shamanism”
by Ken Cohen in this issue, especially pp. 50-51.

3. Its relatives are still
an integral part of indigenous medical systems in India,
Tibet and China


In the summer of 1980 I had the
opportunity to teach a course on “Alchemy and Depth
Psychology” at the California Institute of Integral Studies
in San Francisco.4 The class read and discussed
alchemical texts and their modern, psychological
interpretations, examined the symbolic and mythic art of the
alchemical philosophers, and pondered, contemplated, and
meditated on the meanings of these expressions and symbols.
We discovered that the class itself turned into a kind of
collective alchemical experiment, in that many of the
participants had experiences in dreams and meditations of an
alchemical nature and observed changes in their lives
resulting from these experiences. Different class members
chose, or were internally guided to choose, different
alchemical processes to focus on, such as separatio,
solutio, calcinatio, coagulatio and so forth. Each person’s
chosen process turned out to be a significant factor in
their present personal learning and growth.

The student who wrote about sepia
ratio was experiencing internal conflict, separation, and
disintegration, and began to understand it as a necessary
prelude to the process of reintegration and

The person who researched the theme
of solutio felt that she was immersing herself in the
alchemical world, as a result of which many of her habitual,
defensive, rigid ways of looking at and thinking about
things began to dissolve. Solutio in alchemy is the process
by which the hardened, encrusted, crystallizations of
experience, the rigid thought forms and emotional armorings,
become softened and made fluid and flexible. Alchemical
solutio is akin to Christian baptism, and emotional healing
through catharsis, the release of feelings flooding through
the nature.

4. I also wish to
acknowledge the assistance of students at the California
Institute of Integral Studies in the preparation of this
article, especially Jane English and Michael Flanagin. The
paper is based in part on a presentation at the Institute’s
symposium on Applied Mysticism East/West, San Francisco,
March 22, 1981.


The student who chose to explore
calcinatio began having a series of dreams involving intense
purification and transmutation processes through fire. “I
was in a large vat of oil with a woman. On the far side a
fire began to burn spontaneously. I began to run out of the
vat, but the woman I was with fell and needed my assistance.
We were surely in danger of burning alive. The flames were
approaching closer. I stopped running, went back and pulled
the fallen woman up to the ladder and safety.” The dreamer
interpreted this dream to refer to the purification process
akin to yogic tapas, or spiritual “heat” generated through
the practice of austerities. The interaction with the woman
was an indication to him to confront and accept his anima,
or feminine psyche.

The student who wrote about
coagulatio assembled a vast amount of material surrounding
the concepts of hardening, congealing, thickening,
grounding, bringing into earth, applying, forming, and
embodying. Nature and body are seen as the coagulatio of the
spirit. And spirit can be experienced as released in the
solutio of matter. Solve et coagula was a repeated maxim of
the alchemists. Coagulation was also involved, for this
student, in the process of creative expression. It involved
bringing ideas and feelings into the form of symbols or
words, externalizing subtle, inner experiences into physical

The interaction of spirit and
matter, in the external world of Nature, and in the interior
microcosm of man, is one of the key themes in alchemical
writings. In the famous Emerald Tablet attributed to Hermes,
we are told to “separate the earth from the fire and the
subtle from the gross, softly and with great caution.” The
subtle fire is the fire of spirit, the subtle Presence of
pure awareness, which must be disidentified (separated) from
the gross earth, the physical body, and from the world of
sense objects. The Emerald Tablet goes on: “It rises from
earth to heaven and comes down again from heaven to earth,
and thus acquires the power of the realities above and the
realities below. In this way you will acquire the glory of
the whole world.” Awareness rises upward to the highest
realms, the dimensions of enlightened consciousness
(“heaven”); it then descends again to the realms of physical
world (“earth”), as well as the intermediate worlds of the
psyche. Thus awareness brings “heaven down to earth,” and is
able to function in the higher realms of spirit as well as
the lower realms of the material world.

So the opus, the work, of alchemy is
transformation: the transformation of lead, which is heavy,
dark, dense consciousness, into gold, which is shining,
reflective, malleable, conductive consciousness, through a
process akin to extraction or purification. The purification
and other processes are carried out in a vessel, a furnace,
an oven, that is the body, the human microcosm. Therefore
the work is a psychophysical transformation, involving
changes in somatic structure and function as well as changes
in consciousness.

The alchemists also combined
metallurgical and mining symbolism with organic, biological
symbolism. The opus is described as a growing, living
process, akin to the fertilization and birth of a child.
Earth is the mother, from which the miners extract the
golden essence, the spiritual seed. Paracelsus says: “Nature
does not produce anything that is perfect in itself; man
must bring everything to perfection. This work of bringing
things to their perfection is called alchemy. And he is an
alchemist who carries what nature grows for the use of man
to its destined end.” The process is often described as the
ripening of a fruit, and there are drawings of “the
philosophers’ tree” on which the fruits are the different
metals and/or planetseach of which corresponds to a
different aspect of man’s nature in its developed or
perfected form.5

5. We may also note the
close relationship of alchemy with astrology. The planets
correspond to metals, which correspond to features of the
human being. There are, in other words, patterns of
correspondence between “heaven,” the macrocosmos, “earth” or
Nature, and “man,” or the human being. The planets do not
rule man’s fate, as simplistic distortions of the ancient
science would have it. The zodiac and all the celestial
bodies are within. Mars is that aspect of you that is fiery,
aggressive, forceful, and dynamic. Saturn is that part of
you that is stable, mature, conscientious, disciplined, and


The opus, then, is very often
compared to a kind of higher embryology involving the
conception, development, and birth of a new creature-a
child, often called the filius philosophorum, the
philosophers’ child. This is the new being, the regenerate
man that you become as a result of the process of
transmutation. This new being is the offspring of the two
polar opposites of our nature: “The sun is its father, the
moon is its mother.” It comes alive through the androgynous
union of the male and female principles within. “The wind
carries it in his belly” (as the Emerald Tablet continues).
Now wind and air generally symbolize mind, the realm of
thought. The process is first embodied as an idea, a
concept. You have to start with the idea. Then the idea
becomes earthed or grounded: “The earth is its nurse.” The
child of the philosophers is nourished, fed by Nature, grown
in the body of earth. The process of spiritual unfoldment
for the alchemical natural philosophers had to be a natural,
organic process. We have to study Nature and obey her laws
in order to discover her secrets and help bring her ripening
processes to perfection. We have here in the alchemical
world view a perfect blending of the religious and
scientific attitudes and purposes that later became so
completely divorced.

The principle of duality or
polarity, the coincidentia oppositorum, appears in many
variations in alchemical literature. We have already
mentioned the interaction of spirit and matter, the
dissolution and coagulation. There is also the marriage, the
coniunctio, the union of Sun and Moon, Sol and Luna, the
masculine father principles of radiance, light, heat, and
energy with the feminine mother principles of magnetism,
mystery, beauty, feeling, and water. The inner marriage as
described in alchemy, sometimes as a “chemical wedding,” is
akin to the Taoist’s blending of yang and yin, or the
Tantric yogi’s fusion of Siva and Sakti in the pingala and
ida energy
channels of the
subtle body. Sometimes the alchemical marriage is said to be
between the King and the Queen: these are the male and
female aspects of the person, the ego. The King is often
shown being purified, purged in a hot bath or furnace, freed
of black dross, sweating out the impurities, the attachments
that link ego to the world of sense objects. Sometimes the
marriage is described as being between a red man (air
rubeus) and a white woman (mulier candida): the red, fiery,
martial, choleric masculine and the purified, innocent,
virginal, venusian feminine. These are all aspects of what
Jung would call unifying with the anima, female psyche, or
the animus, male psyche.

An alchemical text titled The Sophic
Hydrolith tells us that the philosophers’ child, the outcome
of the opus, is “the most ancient, secret, natural,
incomprehensible, heavenly, blessed, beatified, and triune
universal Stone of the Sages.” Of it, Gerhard Dorn writes
that “this child of the two parents, of the elements and
heaven, has in itself such a nature that the potentiality
and the actuality of both parents can be found within

This outcome, or fruit, of the
alchemical opus is sometimes referred to as a tincture or
panacea or elixir, in other words, something of a fluid
nature that has healing properties. This clearly relates to
the medical and longevity interests of the alchemists. As we
have seen, sometimes it is referred to as a child, an
offspring, a new person, a transformed human, man or woman,
an enlightened individual. Sometimes, most often in fact, it
is referred to as a “stone”-in other words, a very solid
substance; it is not gold, but very common, and yet in some
way very hard to obtain, invisible but omnipresent. “Our
stone is found in all mountains, all trees, all herbs, and
animals and with all men. It wears many different colors,
contains the four elements and has been designated a
microcosm.” It is all around, and most of all it is within.
It would appear indeed that “stone” refers to a state of
consciousness, something akin perhaps to the “diamond body”
of Vajrayana Buddhism; an inner essence of the human being
that is fluid and changeable like an elixir, often compared
to mercury or quicksilver; but also indestructible, hard and
solid like rock. It is like the Brahman-Atman of the
Upanishads, the self-luminous immutable essence within every
human being, and within the macrocosmos.

Paracelsus says: “There is nothing
in heaven or in earth that is not also in man. In him is God
who is also in heaven; and all the forces of heaven operate
likewise in man.

“In man, the ability to practise
all crafts and art is innate, but not all these arts have
been brought to the light of day. Those which are to become
manifest in him must first be awakened…. We are born to be
awake, not to be asleep! … The earth brings forth all
things and holds back nothing, not even the least thing; all
the more should man help the gifts that God has sown in him
to prosper. . . . Man should always keep this in mind; he
should not fall asleep, but in daily effort should strive
for his summer lest it be always winter round him.”



Burckhardt, Titus. Alchemy.
Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1971.

De Rola, Stanislas Klossowski.
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Eliade, Mircea. The Forge and the
Crucible. New York: Harper & Row, 1971.

Grossinger, Richard, ed. Alchemy:
PreEgyptian Legacy, Millennial Promise. Richmond, Calif.:
North Atlantic Books, 1979.

Jung, Carl G. Alchemical Studies,
vol. 13, Collected Works. New York: Pantheon Books,

Mysterium Coniunctionis, vol. 14,
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Von Franz, Marie-Louise. Alchemical
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