The Philosopher's Stone
During the winter of 1936-37, while living in London, I came down with a severe cold which proved intractable to treatment. My respiratory tract had become sensitized in early childhood by a bout of bilateral bronchial pneumonia. The result was that I was confined to bed for two weeks.
Instead of the usual mystery and detective stories recommended for such situations, my reading companion was Mrs. Atwood’s Suggestive Inquiry into the Hermetic Mystery. For years I had struggled vainly with this large tome, annoyed continually by its obscurantism and pompous literary style that was almost as bad as A. E. Waite’s, but I had never really managed to comprehend her presentation of Alchemy. Now, bedridden, I was determined to give her book one final perusal. If, then, it still yielded nothing for me, I proposed to discard it along with some other books which had outlived their usefulness in my life. So, with notebook and pencil by my side in bed, I began casually to glance through Mrs. Atwood’s book, underlining a significant passage here and there, and jotting down some brief notes on the pad.
Valete, Fratres et Sorores.
Studio City, California
Suddenly, and to my utter amazement, the whole enigma became crystal clear and alive. The formerly mysterious Golden Tractate of Hermes and The Six Keys of Eudoxus seemed all at once to open up to unfold their meaning. Feverishly I wrote. In effect, the greater part of The Philosopher’s Stone got written in those two weeks of bronchitis. It is true that later I added some diagrams together with a short commentary to Vaughan’s alchemical text, and a few quotations from Carl G. Jung and other authors whose works were not immediately available while I was confined to bed. But actually the main body of the book was composed there and then.
My book has been praised as a good meaningful book by some reviewers and by many readers, to judge from the mail I have received during the past thirty years. It is patently an open sesame to one level of interpretation. The Occult Review, now defunct, published a critical review by Archibald Cockren who took me rather severely to task for asserting that alchemical texts should be interpreted solely in terms of psychological and mystical terms. He himself, I subsequently discovered, had written a book Alchemy Rediscovered and Restored. Of course I immediately procured a copy. Since I was peeved by his review, I did not feel that his book had very much to offer—so I dismissed both offhand. I was about to write the editor of The Occult Review a scorching letter, but reason intervened so that fortunately it never got written.
The opportunity is rarely given to an author in his lifetime “to eat crow” and to enjoy it. This lot, it pleases me to say, is mine—after thirty years. Not that I would significantly change much of what I wrote then. I admitted that I had not “proceeded to the praxis” but I felt then and still do that a mystical and psychological interpretation of some alchemical texts was legitimate. There is unequivocally this aspect of the subject. Certainly Jacob Boehme and Henry Khunrath, for example, cannot be interpreted except in these terms.
Nor should one be permitted to forget some of the preliminary provisions laid down by Basil Valentine in The Triumphant Chariot of Antimony:
This object I pursue not only for the honour and glory of the Divine Majesty, but also in order that men may render to God implicit obedience in all things.
I have found that in this Meditation there are five principal heads, which must be diligently considered, as much are in possession of the wisdom of philosophy as by all who aspire after that wisdom which is attained in our art. The first is the invocation of God; the second, the contemplation of Nature; the third, true preparation; the fourth, the way of using; the fifth, the use and profit. He who does not carefully attend to these points will never be included among real Alchemists, or be numbered among the perfect professors of the Spagyric science. Therefore we will treat of them in their proper order as lucidly and succinctly as we can, in order that the careful and studious operator may be enabled to perform our Magistery in the right way.
It is evident then that though some alchemists did work manually in a chemical laboratory, they were at the same time men of the highest spiritual aspirations. For them, the Stone was not only tangible evidence of successful metallic transmutation; it was accompanied by an equivalent spiritual transmutatory process.
My readers will know by now that my thinking on most of these occult subjects had been profoundly influenced by the life and work of Aleister Crowley. So far as his knowledge of alchemy went, I ought to narrate that in the winter of 1897, he had gone to Switzerland for mountain-climbing and winter sports. While there he encountered a Julian Baker, with whom he had a long conversation about alchemy. This indicates at the very least that Crowley had been widely reading on this topic as well as on mysticism. As a result of this conversation, Baker promised to introduce Crowley to a chemist in London, George Cecil Jones who might be instrumental in getting him admitted into the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. There is not the least shred of evidence to indicate that Crowley, Baker or Jones had done any practical laboratory work in alchemy. In magic—yes; in alchemy, no!
Many years later, Crowley came to use alchemical symbolism to elucidate the “Mass of the Holy Ghost,” the sex-magic principles of the O.T.O., principles which I re-stated in the 16th chapter of The Tree of Life.
To refer back to the Golden Dawn, it seems to me that there was little that was really illuminating on alchemy in its curriculum, though in other areas, particularly the magical, I feel to-day as I always have.
The Golden Dawn was essentially a Qabalistic and magical order, not an alchemical one. I do not know of any evidence pointing out that Mathers or Westcott had ever engaged in operating an alchemical laboratory. One document, bearing the imprimatur of Mathers, deals with alchemy, not from the laboratory viewpoint, but from that of ritual magic—and at best it is plain verbiage. Its mystical interpretation is best expressed in a speech made by one Adept in its classic ritual: “In the alembic of thine heart, through the athanor of affliction, seek thou the True Stone of the Wise.”
To this extent, the Golden Dawn had severed its traditional ties with the parent Rosicrucian bodies of Germany and Central Europe which were patently alchemical. One has only to glance casually through The Secret Symbols of the Rosicrucians to realize the extent to which Alchemy was considered the predominant feature in the Rosicrucian work of that era.
I know none of its members who could at any time have thrown any ray of light on alchemy. One member, the late Capt. J. Langford Garstin wrote a couple of books, Theurgy and The Secret Fire about alchemy, but they too yield little of practical value on the subject. I have met people here and there in the past forty years who could talk about Alchemy, but I cannot say that any of them made much sense.
Events in the past few years—a Uranus cycle—have conspired to force upon me a thoroughgoing expansion or reorientation of my original point of view, so that I can now quite happily admit that Archibald Cockren was right.
How this came about is a story in itself—typical of the way in which such things occur. Through a friend of a friend of mine, I was introduced to Mr. Albert Riedel of Salt Lake City, Utah, while he was visiting Los Angeles. At the time I was domiciled there, enjoying the sunny climate and occasionally ruminating over the inclement weather of London where I was born. It took only a few minutes to realize that I was talking to the first person I had ever met who knew what he was talking about on the subject of Alchemy. We promised to keep in touch—and we did.
This promise later eventuated in an invitation to attend a seminar on Alchemy that he was conducting at the newly instituted Paracelsus Research Society in Salt Lake City. Most of the material presented in the Seminar concerned Alchemy, Qabalah, Astrology, etc.—with which I was already theoretically familiar—though even there some radically new and stimulating viewpoints were obtained. But the piece-de-resistance was the laboratory work. Here I was wholly dumbfounded.
It took no more than a few minutes to help me realize how presumptuous I had been to assert dogmatically that all alchemy was psycho-spiritual. What I witnessed there, and have since repeated, has sufficed to enable me to state categorically that, in insisting solely on a mystical interpretation of alchemy, I had done a grave disservice to the ancient sages and philosophers.
When Basil Valentine said, for example, in his work on antimony: “Take the best Hungarian Antimony. . . . pulverize it as finely as possible, spread thinly on an earthenware dish (round or square)... . place the dish on a calcinatory furnace over a coal fire...” he means exactly what he says—exactly and literally. When he says a coal fire, he was not referring to the inner fire or Kundalini. It is simply ridiculous to assume he is talking in symbols which must be interpreted metaphysically, etc. Once you have followed his instructions to the letter, literally, or have been privileged to have seen this laboratory process demonstrated, then you know that “manually” is certainly not meant to be interpreted as by Mrs. Atwood in terms of mesmeric passes of the hands. There is a more or less lengthy passage in Praxis Spagyrica Phiosophica by Frater Albertus (Salt Lake City, 1966) which is worthy of quotation at this juncture. He wrote, in a footnote to page 77 et seq:
Some have gone to extreme pains to duplicate the ancient implements of former alchemists. They had to be able to obtain better, or at least for sure, the same results with our modem instruments. Take the regulation of heat alone. Formerly it was an arduous task requiring an assistant to keep the temperatures under control for the various manipulations. This expense alone was one that not many of the average persons could afford. To-day we have gas, natural or artificial, electricity and other means at our disposal giving us a much greater accuracy than was possible to obtain by manual operation. Vessels are stronger and not as fragile as formerly. Pyrex and similar glass containers can take much more heat and are in less danger of breaking. Stainless steel, another of the modern marvels, does away with the old copper still that had formerly many corrosive sublimates and other by-products when natural processes were followed ….
Last, but not least, it should be remembered that many of the essential ingredients used had to be prepared by slow and sometimes hard manual operations. The required basic substances were not always as easily available as it appears. Great distances, and the necessary time involved, made it even more difficult. There was no air parcel post. Horse drawn wagons had to bring the goods that were not immediately available (sometimes from foreign countries). No telephone calls over greater distances, spanning continents, were available to make possible the information needed at a critical point …. Despite all these and similar hardships they were able to accomplish what many in our days cannot do. Telephone and air travel not withstanding ….
Again, let me repeat, my analysis of the three alchemical texts of The Philosopher’s Stone is worth preserving. I am proud that Llewellyn Publications has seen fit to return it to print in a new edition. I should have re-written parts of the book in order to incorporate what I have since discovered through the person and work of Frater Albertus Spagyricus, the nom de plume which he prefers to be known by, but I have decided to let it stand as it was first written.
It did represent the dawn of insight for me then, and it was the product of a genuine illumination, partial though it was, and outgrown it as I have to-day. As such I think it has the inherent right to continued existence in its original form. Moreover, it may prove useful to other students who have not yet discovered this point of view, which certainly is a valid one. They may be at the stage of growth I was in thirty years ago, where it could be of value. It needs merely to be supplemented by other reading of more recent vintage.
In the meantime, The Philosophers Stone with these preliminary comments, should answer a wide-felt need which has called forth this new edition. I hope, being in print once more, it will bring new light and knowledge and values to present-day students who may be still groping in the dark areas of the occult towards alchemy, where a guiding hand needs to be extended.
So, to close this Introduction, I must use the ancient Rosicrucian greeting, and the close of a Golden Dawn ritual:
May what we have partaken here sustain us in our search for the Quintessence; the Stone of the Philosophers, True Wisdom and perfect Happiness, the Summum Bonum.
Roseae Rubeae et Aureae Crucis.
Benedictus Dominus Deus noster qui dedit nobis hoc signum.
November 1, 1968
Valete, Fratres et Sorores.
Studio City, California