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Alchemist's Laboratory (detail), illustration from Heinrich Khunrath: Amphitheatrum sapientiae aeternae (Amphitheatre of Eternal Wisdom), Hamburg 1595

Alchemy, also called the Royal Art by the alchemists, serves, where it remains true to its original meaning, the spiritual transformation of the world of substances, which at the same time should contribute to an inner spiritual transformation of the alchemist.

Origin of the word «alchemy»

Albertus Magnus (fresco (1352), Treviso, Italy) was an important alchemist and around 1250 first described the production of arsenic by reduction of arsenic (arsenic(III) oxide, As2O3) with coal.

Presumably, the word alchemy derives from the Arabic الخيمياء (al-ḫīmiyāʾ) or الكيمياء (al-kīmiyāʾ) or from the Greekχυμεία (chymeia). The former is the name by which the ancient Egyptians themselves referred to their country, i.e. alchemy is understood here as the "art of the Egyptians", in the sense of the latter as the "science of casting". In fact, both expressions seem to have the same root. The ancient Egyptians called their land Kemet (Km.t), which means "Black Land" or "Black Earth" and refers to the fertile soils of the Nile valley - in contrast to the "Red Land" of the adjacent deserts, the Descheret (Dšr.t). In Coptic it became Kīmi or Kīmə and finally Kymeía in ancient Greek. This etymology points to the origins of alchemy in ancient Egypt and (Hellenistic) Greece. Karl Christoph Schmieder also reports: „When Plutarch asked for the meaning of this word, he was shown the black in the eye. It was a witty hieroglyph for "dark, hard to see into", i.e. mystery.“ (Schmieder, p. 52)

Alchemy and the Astral World

According to Rudolf Steiner, the secret of alchemy is the third of the so-called seven secrets of life and is guided by the law of elective affinity, which also determines, so to speak, the sympathy and antipathy of substances to one another. The chemical affinity of substances is a physical reflection of these laws. This third secret of life already had its origin on the third planetary embodiment of our Earth, the so-called Old Moon. It was then that the astral body of man was formed.

„On the third planet a third thing developed in addition to the number: the law of elective affinity. It consists in the fact that people develop sympathy and antipathy for each other. This law is found in all realms, for example in chemistry, in the mineral kingdom. This also made it possible for a new kingdom to form. The animal kingdom, the plant kingdom, the mineral kingdom were formed. Man, as we see him today, did not exist at that time. He was then still a kind of animal, on the kamic stage. The spirit had not yet entered the body.“ (Lit.:GA 89, p. 144ff)

Sympathy and antipathy are the two basic forces of the astral world and the true background of all genuine alchemical endeavours is the transformation and purification of the astral forces that underlie the material world, accompanied by the simultaneous gradual transformation of the human astral body into the spirit self.

The development of alchemy in the course of cultural epochs

Egyptian-Chaldean culture

Theophrast of Hohenheim, called Paracelsus developed the doctrine of the Tria Principia.

As a human skill, alchemy originated in Egypt and is rooted in the practical craftsmanship with materials, which the Egyptians had already mastered in the early days of the Egyptian-Chaldean culture, guided by the high initiates who were still able to see with clairvoyance the elementary beings working in the material world. Hermes Trismegistos, who according to Steiner had been a disciple of Zarathustra in an earlier incarnation, is regarded as their first and highest teacher and inaugurator of Egyptian culture. The best-known writing directly attributed to Hermes, although its external historical trace can only be traced back to the Middle Ages, is the Tabula Smaragdina, which is often regarded by alchemists as the key to the preparation of the philosopher's stone.

Greco-Latin culture

With the rise of philosophy in the Greco-Latin period, alchemy became a branch of the more speculative ancient natural philosophy. Special attention was paid to the four-element doctrine and the central teachings of Aristotle: the fifth element (the quintessence), which he conceptualised for the first time, the prima materia, which he also characterised, and his hylemorphism, according to which all finite substances consist of two different principles: matter (Greekὕλη hýlē) and form (Greekμορφή morphḗ).

At the beginning of the 1st century AD, Alexandria was the predominant centre of alchemy. Alchemy incorporated much of the craft knowledge and skills for the production of colours, fragrances, oils, medicines and cosmetics, which was only passed on orally from woman to woman, which is why alchemical work was also sometimes referred to as opus mulierum ("women's work"). Matter was also regarded as mater or matrix, as mother or even womb, as a maternal earthly element which, in the course of the alchemical operations, is impregnated by the cosmic, male-perceived spirit, giving it the possibility of earthly embodiment and earthly efficacy.

Significantly, the oldest surviving alchemical writings were written by a woman. They were written by the legendary Jewish alchemist Mary in about the 1st century AD. Zosimos of Panopolis (about 350 - 420), one of the first historically tangible alchemists, quotes her frequently. Mary lived and worked in Alexandria, otherwise practically nothing is known about her life. In her writings, she describes a wide variety of basic working methods, alchemical ovens and distillation apparatuses, and already reports on the Opus Magnum for the preparation of the philosopher's stone.

Consciousness soul age

At the beginning of the consciousness soul age, Paracelsus (1493 - 1541) established the doctrine of the Tria Principia sulphur, mercurius and sal, which is closely connected with the threefold nature of man and proved to be very fruitful for the understanding of healing processes and the preparation of remedies. However, the tria principa are not substances but processes, i.e. the sulphur process, the mercury process and the salt process, whose material carriers can be different substances.

In the 17th/18th century, alchemy was finally successively replaced by modern chemistry and pharmacology, which only pay attention to the physical outside of substances.


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References to the work of Rudolf Steiner follow Rudolf Steiner's Collected Works (CW or GA), Rudolf Steiner Verlag, Dornach/Switzerland, unless otherwise stated.
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Index to the Complete Works of Rudolf Steiner - Aelzina Books
A complete list by Volume Number and a full list of known English translations you may also find at Rudolf Steiner's Collected Works
Rudolf Steiner Archive - The largest online collection of Rudolf Steiner's books, lectures and articles in English (by Steiner Online Library).
Rudolf Steiner Audio - Recorded and Read by Dale Brunsvold - Anthroposophic Press Inc. (USA)
Rudolf Steiner Handbook - Christian Karl's proven standard work for orientation in Rudolf Steiner's Collected Works for free download as PDF.