Better Living Through Alchemy
by Lynn Osburn
When I was growing up in America back in the 1950s and 1960s, DuPont, the chemical corporate giant used the slogan “better living through chemistry” to advertise their economic paradigm. “Better living through chemistry” brought us poisoned groundwater, poisoned air, our bodies poisoned with traces of synthetic molecules and heavy metals, our bodies poisoned with artificially altered food products.
The list of woes and complaints generated from “better living through chemistry” continues to grow. Yet there is nothing inherently pathological in the science of chemistry. Miracle drugs chemically engineered have vanquished diseases and alleviated painful symptoms. The drug companies promise even more in their advertisements. TV commercials claim one pill will give you energy, another will make you feel young. One breath mint company’s commercials insinuate their sugar pill will enhance the user’s problem solving skills while enabling the user to step out of conformity to solve the problem—that’s a lot of magic from a breath mint.
What the drug companies promise is quite alluring and generates billions of dollars in annual retail sales. If advertisements for chemical concoctions claimed that ingredients were compounded with magic spells to make them work miracles, the government attorneys would accuse them of fraud. However it is legitimate to proclaim that through the genius of science and the technology of chemistry ingredients have been compounded that can work miracles. This scientific proclamation to have produced a miracle-working pill finds acceptance because science has replaced magic as the reality interface between people and Nature.
Magic has a certain spiritual vitality while science usually operates mechanistically, seemingly lacking in spiritual vitality. Science hasn’t lost its soul; for a very long time now its body has been enslaved by national and corporate economic interests. Before that time the spirit that embued the scientific methods with creative genius was the dynamic soul, Alchemy. For thousands of years alchemy technicians compounded pills called Stones that cured disease, alleviated pain, unleashed energy and rejuvenated the body. The people experiencing these Philosopher’s Stones believed they were magic; the alchemists always said the Stone was art and science coupled to the inspiration of the divine.
Alchemy is a philosophical discipline utilizing protoscientific principles that are applied through scientific methods. Alchemy blossomed about 2000 years ago out of the culture chaos where East met West at the beginning of the current epoch—an epoch nearing its end, an epoch where civilization thus far has gone global on a tidal wave of technical knowledge.
The alchemist sages and adepts not only established the essential methods used in modern medicine and the sciences of chemistry, biochemistry, pharmacology, psychopharmacology and psychology; they also created the paradigm at the heart of the global counterculture and psychedelic movement—the desire to know thyself and live naturally. Alchemy is the spiritual discipline of the Initiate culture. The Initiates throughout history have run afoul of the authoritarian hierarchy of rulers established by economies of governments and dogmas of religions.
The marriage of the decaying Roman empire to a fanatic religion of the masses, Paulist Christianity, created the Holy Roman empire and through several ecumenical councils brought forth the Dark Ages and outlawed the pursuit of knowledge by declaring the Tree of Knowledge was the fruit forbidden by god. The resulting creative stagnation and spiritual repression banned all avenues of communion with the mysterious and seriously inhibited Western cultural growth. The alchemists took that psycho-social babble of religio-statesmanship and spun a golden thread through it that tapped the creative energies despite prohibitions by the church-state. Alchemists devoted their lives to the pursuit of self development under the guise of making gold. Early on they cooked the ancient instinctual patterns and primordial drives of our ancestors, distilling and congealing from them the archetypal psychic structures that drive us today.
The goal of the alchemical “magnum opus” (great work) was no less than individual self-perfection through physical transmutation and spiritual transcendence. To that end the alchemists experimented with countless substances, unlocking the mysteries of chemical composition and probing the nature of energy/matter. They worked in laboratories making profound medicines called tinctures, elixirs, cylssi, and stones from a multitude of plants and minerals. The production of alchemical medicines they called the Spagyric Art. From the spagyric art came the sciences of pharmacology and psychopharmacology. Spagyric preparations were for healing the body, clearing the mind, and some were capable of extending life many years beyond the average lifespan.
The “great work” on metals and minerals was undertaken in the laboratory. The “prima materia” (starting material) was broken down and ultimately reassembled into a red and a white powder. Both were extremely potent and deadly. The alchemists rarely ever revealed the detailed processes for making the red and white “Philosopher’s Stones.” They believed it was essential for each “operator” to do the work individually, so they obscured their recipes, simply describing the procedures as generally taking two paths, the Humid and the Dry. The “humid path” operations took longer to complete but were not as difficult as the “dry path” operations which required more subjective finesse and artful technical discernment.
An operator tested the efficacy of the powders by “projecting” a minuscule portion onto any metal; lead, tin, copper or brass were favorites. The powders acted like catalysts actually transmuting the metal into silver or gold depending on which powder was used. If the transmutation was successful the adept consumed an extremely dilute admixture of the two powders. A profound transmutation began, causing a metamorphosis of being. The operator became immortal and capable of transcending space/time—a universal navigator. Legends abound in the old literature about transmuted alchemist sages appearing in times of great need and miraculously helping humanity, then vanishing. Tradition has it that one of the last things an adept did before transcending space/time was to leave a written record—a memoir and guiding light for those still in the labyrinth.
“In the word spagyria two Greek words are hidden: spao, to draw out, to divide; and egiero, to gather, to bind, to join. These two concepts form the foundation of every genuine alchemical work, hence the often-quoted phrase ‘Solve et coagula, et habebis magisterium!’ (Dissolve and bind, and you will have the magistery) — Practical Handbook of Plant Alchemy, by Manfred M. Junius; Inner Traditions International Ltd., New York; 1985; page 1