In part one of this series on alchemy, I promised we shall investigate and uncover the code and hidden meaning of alchemy, the mother of all modern sciences. While the first article was an overview, this time we plunge right into the very foundation of this ancient art by examining the basics of alchemical thinking.
The ancients tell us all things are composed of the four elements Fire, Air, Water and Earth, which in turn derive from the Fifth Element, sometimes referred to as Ether or Aether, sometimes called the Void, Akasha, Space, or the mind of God.
These four elements are not to be confused with our known, daily material phenomena or substances of the same name, but are the non-physical or rather pre-physical formative forces that pervade everything and that every object, as well as every living being, is composed of. An idea that is hard to swallow for most modern scientists, I know. But then, alchemy is not material science, but based upon a spiritual understanding. The four elements are not only seen as pre-physical building blocks, they are understood to be bearers of attributable, specific qualities and consciousnesses that can be experienced and worked with. This is, of course, a claim that lets us easily lose 99.95% of all contemporary scientists.
I remember my high school physics books from days gone by where at the beginning of the chapter on the atom the smug authors ridiculed Aristotle for his explaining everything with four elements. "Outdated!" was this model, they said. They told us that the atom is rather to be envisioned as something akin to a little solar system, with a big, heavy nucleus and tiny, light electrons orbiting around it. This is the Bohr/Rutherford model of the atom which is still taught today, even though it is totally contradicted by the atomic model of quantum physics. Here, of course, we encounter a world of whirling sub-atomic particles, a zoo of quarks and leptons and a myriad others with qualities such as "strangeness" and other weird attributes which are supposed to form the atom, a something that consists mostly of nothing. The problem with this model is: It does not hold up either once we enter the realm of Nanotechnology and look at individual atoms. Today's advanced electron scanner tunneling microscopes let us actually take a peek at the molecular level. What we see there are orderly patterns of stable, calm and quietly sitting atoms - some look like round balls, while atoms of some metals are pyramidal in shape, nicely stacked together to form a solid structure which we call matter.
Hopefully not too confused by modern contradictions, we shall return to the ancient concept of the four elements and examine its practical application.
Two approaches are open to us: One is to examine matter and either separate the four elements in order to investigate their qualities, or find substances that are said to be dominated by one of the elements. The other approach is purely spiritual and produces results that belong to the realm of magic. Let us have a look at both.
In laboratory alchemy, a traditional experiment to uncover some of the attributes of the four elements is to collect rain water, let it ferment on its own without additives, and once the so-called putrefactive fermentation is complete, which happens within approximately six weeks, we fractionate the brew by distillation: The first quarter of the liquid that distills over is considered to be dominated by the fire element of rain water, which yields, when further fractionated, an acidic liquid.
The last quarter is the earth element -dominated part which yields an alkaline fluid when further separated. Acids and alkalis out of rain water! A complete description of the process can be found in Manfred Junius' book: A Practical Handbook of Plant Alchemy. This process has further implications for laboratory work in alchemy, but may not be of much interest to the more casual observer.
An easier approach to find out about the qualities of the four elements is to open the spice cabinet in our kitchen and engage our senses. Cayenne is the spice that is clearly dominated by the fire element, with its hot and dry qualities, while we may find a spice in our refrigerator that is on the other side of the spectrum and actually cooling: cilantro. All old Western herbals such as the Tabernaemontanus and Culpeper have listed the four element-related qualities, or energetics, of herbs and spices. Only contemporary herbals in our culture do not necessarily cover these qualities anymore.