Oh, these quaint medieval mystics. Nobody has a use for alchemy anymore. We have chemistry now! Sure, my therapist has dropped a buzzword or two about my moving from nigredo through rubedo to albedo, and from what I understood of the concept, it was more of a poetic way of identifying and referring to stages in the recovery of depression (in my case, at least) but completely useless in making recovery happen.
That was the general idea that I had somehow formed about alchemy, until I read of Catherine MacCoun’s book On Becoming An Alchemist recommended on Sophia Gubb’s blog and decided to give the book a read-through.
The first misconception that changed during the reading was that Alchemy wasn’t a belief system but a set of methods based around one belief, that is, of being able to turn lead into gold. That made it all more of a superstition, really.
As it turns out, Alchemy does have an associated system of beliefs, which MacCoun lucidly and simply explained as the foundation: the division of the gross (or existential) and the subtle (or experiential); why even though we know that the notions referred to in Alchemical spirituality do not occupy space and therefore have no direction, an Alchemist would still refer to movement between levity and gravity; and much more.
A short digression: from what else I’ve read here and there about the subject, Alchemy wasn’t limited to attempting to turn less valuable metals into gold, but also included (in the case of the homunculi) creating life from non-living things without resorting to sexual intercourse, and (in the case of the creation of a basilisk) genetic engineering before anybody knew about genetics.
In the Alchemical creation of the Philosopher’s Stone, there would be anywhere from four to twelve steps depending on who wrote the how-to manual that the Alchemist is presently working with. Such distinguished authors would be Mary Hebraica (or “Mary the Jew” and are you kidding me there are like umpteen gazillion women throughout history named Mary who were also Jewish I am only slightly exaggerating), Roger Bacon or someone pretending to be Roger Bacon, Cleopatra the Alchemist who is not to be confused with Cleopatra Philopator VII, and numerous others.
The main “ingredient” remained ever a mystery, but once obtained, the tasks that an Alchemist would take to would involve burning something dry and grinding it down, adding fluids, separating one component from the rest of the resulting liquid, emulsifying other components that had curdled, leaving the whole thing alone to ferment, watching for the changes in colour, boiling until the thing produces vapours and then collecting the vapours in a retort (which is a crooked sort of flask), and imitating the conditions of the earth in heat and pressure so that a stone (the Philosopher’s Stone) would coagulate in the Alchemist’s own little cauldron.
MacCoun sets out seven steps to create the Philosopher’s stone, and explains these processes as metaphors for the development of one’s own personal qualities. Calcination, for example, is a tragedy in life that forces a person to face their fears, because thei fears are actually happening, and thus become more confident. Dissolution would be the growth from a shallow love to true devotion to or compassion for another person.
While the underlying Hermetic and Alchemical philosophy didn’t suit me because of its preoccupation with binaries, the main value being transformation or transmutation was a powerful idea to me. The motions of Alchemy with the goals at every stage became a refreshing way to parse the personal experiences of transformation as they happened. It’s more detailed than what I originally took from Jungian therapy, which is simply, “this is happening” in the metaphor of the colour of the bubbling brew; rather it was a process “this is what your subconscious is doing” in the metaphor of flasks and bunsen burners and accompanying actions.
MacCoun’s book is still my favourite resource about it. The tone is accessible, and the content is densely-packed.
There’s a lot of sexism and this ideal of heterosexuality as the basis for the belief, and Vajrayana Buddhism mentioned ostensibly because it had something to do with Occidental Alchemy (which, while those mentions of Vajrayana were interesting, I didn’t always see the connection) so it’s not perfect, of course, but this is what I’ve used as a springboard to my own practice.
The Alchemical path that applies to personal qualities as the subtle reality (of which the physical practice is representative) is, from what I’ve gathered, most commonly known as Inner Alchemy.
I’d take it a step further, however, and take these transformative notions into qualities present between people rather than within a person. It’s working with (to take a turn for the fey) the Glamour, which is what I call this vague concept of “power” and its imbalances evident on a societal and psychological level. These blend into one another especially if we consider situated cognition, how the psyche cannot be isolated from its context and sustain existence as a thing, and society is composed entirely of a sum of psyches.
To be sure, to cultivate a nature that would have such a conscious and effective action on the world rather than my world was metaphorically the chrysopoeia after the formation of the stone.
But in any case, it is this sort of Alchemically-inspired method that I refer to as the way of the Changeling.