Alchemy, as it is conventionally described, is an ancient art attributed to the transformation of base metals into gold. Among the most charitable accounts of its function is the notion that it was a medieval proto-chemistry that provided the foundation for what would eventually become a legitimate science. More recently though, alchemy has been reframed as an inner art of spiritual transformation through the likes of C.G. Jung and others in the fields of depth psychology and archetypal psychology. Profound works like Jung’s “Psychology of Alchemy” and James Hillman’s “Alchemy of Psychology”, have helped the modern world to understand that the rich imagery and arcane descriptions of chemical processes articulate the activities of the life-power animating the soul on its journey of self-transcendence and apotheosis.
According to this view, alchemy employs chemical, animal, and plant allegories, in the form of bizarre and obscure activities to encode secret teachings of spiritual transformation. Two-headed eagles, hermaphrodites, dragons guarding treasures, green lions eating the sun, and peacocks fanning their tails, inscribe an arcanum only revealed to those who undergo the experiments themselves. This sacred art both conceals and discloses the process of the illumination of the mind and the purification of the soul, leading to the penultimate liberation and eventual redemption of matter.
In the study of Alchemical symbolism, each form and image is a repository of meaning, comprising both expressible and inexpressible aspects. For this reason, we can read a simple phrase or see an image and comprehend it on one level, yet it will also conceal other, deeper layers that are unveiled only to those whose fluency enables them to reach further into its roots.
This type of encryption serves at least two purposes. One is to provide a means to conceal the heterodox spiritual views they express from the oppressive elements that have plagued society at various times in history. Both the Papacy and certain Monarchies have been hostile to “ascensionist” esoteric religious views, making it dangerous for hermeticists, occultists, and Christian mystics to express their views openly. By the same token, esoteric spirituality almost universally undergoes a misinterpretation when submitted to the general public whose lack of spiritual and intellectual maturity prevents them from understanding it and putting it to good use. As many mystics and religious scholars have observed, when inspired spiritual teaching reaches the unprepared, if it is accepted at all, it is done so through a reductionist moralizing and reifying reconfiguration that makes it more suitable to the average intelligence, and often in a way that benefits the power holders of the day. History is full of the misuse, distortion, and abuse of the teachings of Christ, and the prophets.
But encoding esoteric spirituality in the allegories of alchemy not only prevents its misuse and distortion, but it does something far more significant. Archetypal psychology speaks to this function in detail in its examination of the nature of the subconscious mind, its myth-making tendency, and its fluency in the native symbolic language underlying nature. Those adepts of esoteric spirituality, who encoded the inner works of the Sun and the Moon in the alchemical arcanum, have recognized that the dynamics of the subconscious which makes its unplumbed depths amenable to suggestion, has its most potent expression in the skillful use of its own native language – the language of symbols. By encrypting the doctrines of esoteric spirituality into allegories, those very forces within the psyche responsible for the evolution and transformation of the Self are brought into activity, in some sense bypassing the limits of the rational mind and its unquestioned convictions.
In utilizing these symbols through guided imagery and meditative contemplation we are practicing a type of experimental alchemy, resonating those archetypal forms within us. While we may not have a full conscious comprehension of their meaning, those symbols go to work for us, subtly opening our inner sensorium to the realm of the great arcanum.