Arbor Alchemae

Philosophical Tree of Life


Lynn Osburn 2017



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We find a mysterious Philosophical Tree represented in many old alchemical texts. The Philosophical Tree evolves the Elements of the Great Work seen depicted in several motifs. As with everything else in alchemy the images convey subtle revelations observed in the Alchemical Theater of Celestial Astronomy that are manifestly experienced in the Alchemical Theater of Terrestrial Astronomy.

In general the Philosophical Tree harbors the alchemical elements necessary for the evolution of the Philosopher's Stone. The Philosophical Elements depicted in the Alchemical Tree seem to vary in theme on the surface in the artwork. Agreement can be achieved from an inner perspective of the alchemical paradigm in the Theater of Celestial Astronomy. All the elements for the laboratory work in the Terrestrial Theater are contained in this Tree of the Philosophers. The common understanding teaches that the Philosophical Elements are four: Fire, Water, Air and Earth. Many adepts have given discourses on the relationships between the Four Elements.

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Edward Kelly offers a concise dissertation of the deep philosophy joining the elements to the actual protocols necessary to operate in the lab without having to rely on the recipes of others. What he reveals in his "Humid Path, Discourse on the Vegetable Menstrum of Saturn" and "Theater of Terrestrial Astronomy," is in accord with George Ripley by comparing them with Ripley's, "Key to the Golden Gate" and "Marrow of Alchemy." Ripley penned agreement of his protocols with Lully and Guido in his Concordancy. Ripley's protocols go back to the legend of St. Dunstan. Ripley had a copy of the Book of Dunstan and so did Kelly.

The Four Elements are building blocks for the Alchemical Metals that are fruit of the Philosophical Tree. The Tree itself embodies the Fifth Element sages called Quintessence and many other names all signifying "Life." Without it the Stone is not possible.

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It is possible to apprehend the whole process for the Terrestrial Stone by contemplating the varied images presented in the Alchemical Tree artwork. The fruit of which represents more than the classical Four Elements. A variety of creatures inhabit the Alchemical Tree of Life. Some are humanoid others are fantastic and celestial. They depict the living qualities of Philosophical Matter observed by the adepts in their Celestial and Terrestrial theaters.

The essence of the whole Art involves the evolution of the relationship between the ultimate and Primary Forces at play in the Universe. The Primary Forces driving the whole Universe according to Alchemy are generally referred to as Spirit and Soul from the abstract Celestial view point. For them to play in the Terrestrial paradigm requires a condensation of these Forces into concrete form. The form is the Body of Alchemy. When the condensation occurs the Two Prime Forces generate a third Force and the three taken collectively are the Philosophical Principles: Spirit, Soul, and Body.

Spirit, Soul and Body are general and not specific. A further condensation is required to determine the Principles in Matter. When that is accomplished the adepts refer to the three Principles as Mercury, Sulfur and Salt. These operational transmutations are featured in the Alchemical Trees. The depictions of the Tree represent the process as perceived and experienced by the creator of the specific treatise in which the Tree appears. For instance Urbigerus' work of the Circulata has an Alchemical Tree symbolizing components of his process in detail. Norton's treatise has a Tree depicting the steps he used in his work. Ripley reveals the entire process from beginning to end in his fabulous Scrolls.

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The images from those three adepts give one the feeling of the scope imperative in preparation of the Stone in the Great Work. It is difficult to see where to begin unless you glean some insight. That requires spending some time allowing the imagery of the Philosophical Trees ingress into your intuitive function. That function is analogical so you do not have to think about the imagery. Merely spend some time to passively look at whatever of the Alchemical Trees attracts your attention.

The Philosophical Tree is rooted deep into the earth. The roots mine the elements from the earth in the general theme of the work. The elements usually depicted are the seven metals associated with many esoteric undertakings of antiquity. The alchemical operations take place above the earth in the Tree. The results of the operations with the Tree bear fruit which is the Quintessence of the Tree transmuted from one thing to another.

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One can deduce with the help of intuitive insight the Alchemical Tree is the Mine of the Philosophers. This Mine or Tree carries all the elements of alchemy in it. The Tree is the Matter of the alchemists. To work on anything else expecting Philosophical results is futile. Fortunately the Tree is everywhere. For a start one can accomplish a philosophical transmutation with most any tree or herb. All you need to do is gather your ore from one of the Mines of the Philosophers. How do you go about it. Many sages of old searching for the Mines of the Philosophers planted Alchemy Gardens to collect their Philosophical ores.

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The sages have shown the way in the imagery of the Philosophical Tree. You must harvest it. Then distill it to condense the abstract elements into concrete principles.


"Distill the Alchemical Tree" might seem to be a fairly simple dictum on the surface. However many strange alchemical creatures are liberated during the distillation. Those creatures are symbolic of the Lifeforce imbedded in Philosophical Matter received. The Lifeforce or Quintessence was actively motivating the previous life. That original Lifeforce is dispersed into the Chaos of Elements unleashed by the force of Fire often represented by the flaming breath of the Alchemical Dragon. All of the necessary alchemical Principles and Elements motivating the previous life are born anew in the Dragon's Fire.

The first born of the Elements from the Dragon's fiery breath is often called "Our blessed water" or "Argent Vive" or "Mercury" and many other names including Woman, Queen, Silver and Moon. It must be purified of the feces after birth. The second born is a poisonous stinking red oil often called "Blood of the Dragon" or "Asafoetida" or "Sulfur" and many other names including Man, King, Gold and Sun. It must be purified also. Adepts sometimes call this Mercury and Sulfur the "Metallic Natures" or "Hope of Metals." Much is written about alchemical Mercury and Sulfur leading many seekers astray from the Philosophical Tree and into a focus on dead things such as mineral ores found in ordinary commercial mines. The persistent seeker of the Terrestrial Stone should not stray from our Philosophical Tree in the endeavor to achieve the Philosopher's Stone.

The work of the Tree can be confusing because of all the names used to describe our Mercury and Sulfur in alchemical dissertations by the sages. Mercury and Sulfur must be joined together. Yet the means of doing so written by the adepts often appear contradictory. Some say to make white and red earth from the Mercury and Sulfur respectively. Others say they must be joined together for the Rebis or Double Mercury.




As you can see in the photos above our Mercury and Sulfur naturally separate from each other. You can also see another element is in the mix before the natural separation. That element is passive in nature. I have tried to separate it before it disappears into our Mercury and Sulfur by tapping off the Mercurial waters to no avail. The agitation of movement causes the matter to hide in the Sulfur. That Element is our elusive Air.

Edward Kelly says a mysterious union between the Mercury and Sulfur is essential to achieve the Stone. In "Stone of the Philosophers" he quotes many sages concerning the nature of Mercury. Kelly says, "Rosinus makes Gold address Mercury as follows: 'Dost thou dispute with me, Mercury? I am the Lord, the Stone which abides the fire.' Says Mercury: 'Thou sayest true; but I have begotten thee, and one part of me quickens many of thee, since thou art grudging in comparison with me. Whoever will join me to my brother or sister shall live and rejoice, and make me sufficient for thee.'"

"In short, our Magistery consists in the union of the male and female, or active and passive, elements through the mediation of our metallic water and a proper degree of heat. Now, the male and female are two metallic bodies. Avicenna: 'Purify husband and wife separately, in order that they may unite more intimately; for if you do not purify them, they cannot love each other. By conjunction of the two natures you get a clear and lucid nature, which, when it ascends, becomes bright and serviceable.' I may add that crude Mercury is the water which the Sages have used for the purpose of solution."

"The Light of Lights: 'Know that it is gold, silver, and Mercury that whiten and redden within and without. The Dragon does not die, unless he be killed with his brother and sister, and it must be not by one, but by both together.'

"Again: 'The whole Magistery is accomplished with our water, and of it. For it dissolves the bodies, calcines and reduces them to earth, transforms them into ashes, whitens and purifies them, as Morienus says: Azoth and fire purify Laton, that is to say, wash it and thoroughly remove its obscurity; Laton is the impure body, Azoth is quicksilver.'"







"Pandulphus: 'The fixed water is pure water of life, and no tinging poison is generated without gold and its shadow. Whoever tinges the poison of the Sages with the Sun and its shadow, has attained the highest wisdom.'"

"Again: 'Separate the elements with fire, unite them by means of Mercury, and the Magistery is complete.'"

Kelly wrote his treatise "The Stone of the Philosophers" while imprisoned by Emperor Rudolph II. He would not reveal the actual laboratory procedures to the Emperor or anyone else. He did as every other sage imprisoned by potentates. Kelly's fate was similar to that of the unfortunate Alexander Sutchen who was tortured and broken on the rack. Yet he did not reveal his method. The adept Sendivogius bribed a guard and rescued Sutchen from the dungeon. Sutchen later died of his injuries. Kelly died attempting to escape for a second time from the tower where he was imprisoned.

What Kelly wrote in that tower prison is invaluable to alchemical operational philosophy:

"It is clear, then, that the elements, or remote first principles of animals, vegetables, and minerals, in Chaos, are susceptible of active movements in fire and water, and of passive movements in earth and air. Water acts on earth, and transmutes it into its own nature; fire heats air, and also changes it into its own likeness.

The active elements may be called male, while the passive elements represent the female principle.

Any compound belonging to any of these three kingdoms - animal, vegetable, mineral - is female in so far as it is earth and air, and male in so far as it is fire and water.

Only that which has consistency is sensuously perceptible. Elementary fire and air, being naturally subtle, cannot be seen.

Only two elements, water and earth, are visible, and earth is called the hiding-place of fire, water the abode of air.

In these two elements we have the broad law of limitation which divides the male from the female."

Quoting Exercit 14 Kelly writes: "The spirit guards the body and preserves it from fire, the clarified body keeps the spirit from evaporating over the fire, the body being fixed and the spirit incombustible. Hence the body cannot be burnt, because the body and spirit are one through the soul. The soul prevents them from being separated by the fire. Hence the three together can defy the fire and anything else in the world."

In his Discourse on the Vegetable Menstruum of Saturn, he reflects on why "Sages have written in such different ways that it is not easy to reconcile their statements. What one affirms to be good and convenient is uncompromisingly rejected by another, so that anyone who strives to gain a knowledge of this Art by reading and comparing books must be fairly puzzled. Hence there have been very few that have ever been rightly and adequately acquainted with this secret; for not everyone who knows the matter, and is cognisant in a mechanical way of the method of preparing it, is deserving of the name of a Sage. For he may know nothing of the theory of physics, or the rationale of our Art..."

The Lifeforce of the Thing our starting matter is symbolized by the Alchemical Tree containing all the Elements necessary for our Philosophical Palingenesis. It is our unifying principle. However our Tree is burnt up. And like the Phoenix, our Tree: the intelligent growth principle, rises from the ashes in the Dragon Fire and lies hidden in the Chaos of Elements received.

The Lifeforce Intelligence takes many forms in the Chaos of Elements created in the Dragon Fire. Our crude Mercury and Sulfur carry the Lifeforce hidden within and not easy to ascertain until they attain purity. Many different ways to this purity have been written down by the adepts. Once pure our Mercury and Sulfur must be conjoined into the Quintessence that will manifest after the inner feces are removed.

The Lifeforce that we labor to preserve and transform is often called Argent Vive by the sages. Living Silver is quick and nimble in the Air. It is the Philosophical Mother Liquor or Matirx hidden in our ardent water that feeds our new Alchemical Tree or Quintessence.

The old Tree that we sacrificed in the Dragon Fire had a natural form or body that manifest its own unique growth patterns as well as those general patterns exhibited by its species as a whole. Paracelsus and others advise to grow a tree like of the starting matter in the vessel of your operations.

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This seems fantastic and many have attempted to follow the instructions to achieve it, but the perceived recipes do not deliver what was described. In the painting of Paracelsus above he is holding a glass flask with what appears to be a bonsai tree growing in it. The tree in the flask looks to be bearing fruit. On his work table is a sand bath with two flasks in which other trees are growing. The representation is symbolic not to be taken literally at face value.

At face value it appears that Paracelsus is growing artificial bonsai trees in glass vessels heated in a san bath by an oil lamp. The representation is true for the incubation of the Stone or Quintessence which is our new Alchemical Tree. However the regimen depicted is very abbreviated. And the Quintessence generated will not resemble the starting matter as it was when previously alive. It does grow and evolve in its own way powered by the Lifeforce born anew in the Argent Vive Mother Liquor.

The Tree in Paracelsus flask represents or symbolizes the Intelligence patterns of Life in fractal form obvious in the general growth patterns of plants. When you successfully condense Arvent Vive in our Air into Sal Armoniac It can grow in fractal dendritic patterns of great beauty.



That display of growth exhibited by the Argent Vive in the Sal Armoniac Tree represents the power of the Green Lion when our Mercurial Waters are joined to our pure fixed Earth to crystallize the Moon Stone. If our Sulfuric Fire is married to our Mercurial Waters rich in Argent Vive then joined to our pure fixed Earth the Stone of the Philosophers can be achieved. Our Sulfuric Fire is well hidden as Kelly remarked. It is not easy to make manifest:





Alchemical Trees source Google Images; Ripley Scroll images: Melon MS 41, Beinecke Library.

Photos taken at New Helm Laboratory