"Man . . . is the true laboratory of the Hermetic art; his life the subject, the grand distillatory, the thing distilling and the thing distilled, and Self-Knowledge . . . the root of all Alchemical tradition."
Mary A. Atwood, Hermetic Philosophy and Alchemy, 1850, 1960

  The Perennial Tradition, 1  the single stream of initiatory teaching flowing through all the great schools of philosophy and mysticism, has taken many embodiments and worked with many themes over the centuries. In this essay we shall explore the essence of Perennialist Alchemy: the theme within the Perennial Tradition which deals with the transmutation 2 of the the human essence.

      The "magic" or occult mystery of Alchemy--has been seen in three different lights:
  1. The spiritual transformation of the human psyche into a higher state of being--which then might be capable of transmutation of persons, objects, or events, as well as other marvelous powers.

  2. A materialistic transmutation of baser metals into gold, silver or other mysterious entities

  3. A giant fraud perpetrated by charlatans pretending to turn base metals into gold and silver

Spiritual Alchemy
Materialistic Alchemy
Alchemy As Fraud
"What is Hermetic Alchemy or the Alchemy of the Philosophers? It is the transmutation, or transformation of the common man into the divine man. The common man is the person we know from our every day lives. He grew up in our society as an ordinary person, unaware of who he really is. The transmutation consists of becoming aware of the different aspects of his being: the physical body and its energies, emotions, thoughts and his divine center, and of purifying body, emotions and thoughts. This purification process will allow his divine center to shine through all these layers and become fully manifest in physical reality. It is the realization of our divine essence. . . The alchemists called it the Great Work." 3 "Those were singular times when few any longer doubted the possibility of gold-making, and individuals of the highest repute devoted their lives to the subtle investigation. We have adduced this notable instance of Lully's prowess in England, as one only amongst many others, quite as well authenticated, which are told by the authors before cited and in the alchemical collections. . . Have we Lully, Cremer, Rupicessa, De Meun, Flamel, John Pontanus, Basil Valentine, Ripley, and the host of contemporary worthies, successively entering the lists." 4

UCI professor says he makes gold from mercury
     "In the modern mind, 'alchemy' conjures up the image of a mis-guided proto-chemist locked away with his ovens and his retorts in a never-ending quest to make gold from lead, bubbling off some noxious mercury fumes from which he derives hallucinogenic images. In this view, the secret knowledge is pure superstition and the alchemist is a deluded fool.

     "Could such a delusion have held the interest of so many brilliant minds over so many centuries? It seems doubtful. There must have been some concrete goal to all this work." 5

"Simply stated, Hermetism, or its synonym Alchemy, was in its primary intention and office the philosophic and exact science of the regeneration of the human soul from its present sense-immersed state into the perfection and nobility of that divine condition in which it was originally created."

Walter Leslie Wilmhurst, Introduction to
Mary A. Atwood's Hermetic Philosophy and Alchemy, 1850, 1960

    Persons within the Perennial Tradition emphasized the theme of Alchemy in what were called the dark ages--beginning in the first century of the common era and continuing until the building of Gothic cathedrals in the twelfth century. Alchemy adopted a special language so that the exact science of psychic and spiritual transmutation could be taught, discussed, and preserved in a manner that would give the practitioner the best chance of avoiding the murderous depredations of the Roman Catholic Inquisitors.

    There appear to have been three strands of thought and practice which worked simultaneously to take the serious alchemical practitioner through the various steps of the precise processes:
    In the chart below we'll trace some of the elements involved in all three of these processes.

Spiritual Operations
Chemical Operations
Alchemical Symbols
Emerald formula: 7 Steps
1. Calcination
2. Dissolution
3. Separation
4. Conjunction
5. Fermentation
6. Distillation
7. Coagulation

Chemically, calcination involves heating a substance in a crucible until it is reduced to black ashes. Spiritually, calcination is destruction of ego and our attachment to material elements. We shift our awareness to our Higher Self.
    The seven stages of the great work of transmutation: Stefan Michelsberger, Cabala, 1616

    1. Calcinatio
    2. Sublimatio
    3. Solutio
    4. Putrefactio
    5. Destillatio
    6. Coagulatio
    7. Conjunctio

    Nigredo     Albedo
   Blackness   Whiteness

    Marriage    Victory

"The uninitiated, who is unaware of the different aspects of the human being, might have difficulty to understand this transformational process, and thus the alchemists gave us explanations in symbolical language. Chemical terms were not the only way they tried to explain what it is about. Some concepts are more easily transferred by means of images, and thus the student of alchemy has to study the drawings and paintings by not only deciphering their symbolic interpretations, but also by feeling them. One could say that the student makes a psychic connection with the archetypes of these images." 3

    We are examining Perennialist Alchemy to gain a complete conceptual understanding of its essence, and also to attain a practical discernment of its actual realization. In this way we can attain the capability of transmuting ourselves into our Higher Self--our Soul. In our efforts we are particularly interested in persons who have successfully studied Perennialist Alchemy to the point that they can provide us with specific and practical means of learning how to realize our goal of self-transmutation. One of the most helpful in this regard is a woman named Mary A. Atwood (1817-1910) who wrote a truly outstanding book: Hermetic Philosophy and Alchemy, 1850, 1960.

    Atwood herself had our same interest in practical, useful knowledge about alchemy, as she states:
"Meanwhile we, who look directly onward to penetrate the mystery, seek not at random any longer in the outer world where so many before have foundered . . . but we look within, or rather, that we may learn how to do so, inquire of the wise ancients to direct us about the true method and conditions of Self-Knowledge. For it is this, no common trance or day-dream, or any fanatical vision of celestials, that we propose to scrutinize, but the true psychical experience. . . " (Italics added)

"What that subtle being is, of which the whole universe is composed, that is the real, that is the soul, that art thou."

Chandogya Upanishad

    In this next section of the essay, we'll examine meticulously the teachings of two persons who have penetrated into the essence of Self-Transmutation in the alchemical tradition: Mary A. Atwood and Rudolph Steiner (1861-1925). We'll review their teachings through an ongoing interpretation of the meaning of their concepts and operations which will draw out deeper meanings and implications that will provide the basis for contemplation and practice. (I suggest you read the interpretation passages aloud to yourself.)

Mary A. Atwood, Hermetic Philosophy and Alchemy, 1850

Rudolph Steiner, Self-Knowledge, 1918

"The end for which man was created is to achieve communion with the Higher Powers above the terrestrial realm, through the light and spirit of the Divine, the wings of the soul. That ought to be man's aim in the acquisition of knowledge."

Plato, Theatetus

"This exit into greater life is the crowning glory of our existence here. It means transfiguration into an electrified and eternal being. . . . The exit is through the doors of self."
Betty and Stewart Edward White, The Road I Know, 1942

    The one contemporary person who unmistakably achieved the locating of her consciousness in her Higher Self, her Soul, was Betty White. Her husband, Stewart Edward White (1873-1946), explained that she could psychically "travel" to any location on earth and bring back evidence that she had been in that spot, but they were interested in more important things: "the development of the individual as a whole to the point where he can enter what amounts to another region of consciousness." 6  Betty explained what was most important: "I am getting an actual demonstration, proof, of a spiritual existence as it is here, not in a future life. It's a very definite winged consciousness, nothing postponed or impossible of attainment about it. It's absolutely the next step we've got to take."

Alchemy As Theurgical Induction of a Higher Trance State

    Theurgy consists of ritualized, performatory 7 procedures bringing about the transmutation of the Soul and its permanent return to awareness of its being within the Eternal World. The initiate, through performing these ceremonies, 8 achieves ascent from the conditions of worldly existence and realization of unity with the Divine One.

    The interpretation of Alchemy as theurgical induction of a higher trance state comes in part from Walter Leslie Wilmhurst's elucidation of Mary A. Atwood's Hermetic Philosophy and Alchemy, 1850, in his introduction to her book. Wilmhurst believed that Atwood had conceived of Alchemy as theurgical induction of a higher trance state, primarily because she had herself experienced a form of mystical enlightenment through her father's alchemically inducing a higher trance state in her. Mary Atwood had, before her marriage and while still living with her father, written a small book entitled Early Magnetism, in its Higher Relations to Humanity As Veiled in the Poets and the Prophets.
"Miss South," says Wilmhurst, "in an emotional moment and at her father's instance wrote and published (in 1846) a thin octavo volume (issued by H. Bailliere, London)."

"As recently as 1903 she [Mary Atwood] said of it [Early Magnetism] in a letter to a friend: ' It was written when we were greatly excited with mesmerism and were mixed up with Dr. Elliotson, Engledue, Ashburner and the rest who were then active in their advocacy through The Zoist and elsewhere ; . . a mere enthusiastic production at a crisis."

"Before writing it she had undoubtedly experienced an interior 'opening,' a spiritual coup d'oeil enabling her to see in a flash the relation of current mesmeric phenomena to central truth, and the way in which classical myths, poets, and especially the Scriptures, illustrated her perceptions and confirmed her conclusions. . . . And she goes on to indicate that in her ecstasy she had been on holy ground, 'terrain incognitam to the many, but firmissimam to the happier few,' and in a Sabbath of the senses and deep inner retirement and central self-communion had felt, seen and known the Divinity within."
    According to Wilmhurst, Mary South (later Mary Atwood) and her father approached Alchemy as a science, and attained a facility with this arcane science that enabled her to achieve a higher trance state through which she realized a mystical experience of enlightenment.

    Wilmhurst followed what he thought was Mary Atwood's interpretation of Alchemy:

"Now this initial process towards discovering the '[Philosopher's] stone' . . . was accomplished in a condition of magnetic trance mesmerically induced upon the aspirant by some wise and skilled operator. . . .

"The separation was that of the aspirant's sense-nature and objective mind from his subjective [subconscious] nature. The former needed to be reduced to quiescence that his consciousness might function in the latter alone and in a necessarily quickened, vivid manner. The aspirant therefore would be placed in the condition of a person at the moment of death or in anaesthesia; but with this difference, that, whilst thus reduced to subjectivity, he would be at the mercy of the compelling will and direction of the operator into whose power he had committed himself. His consciousness, withdrawn from externals, would be restricted to and focused upon the mind's internal content, and these inania regna he would be directed to explore and to consider." 9

The Nature of the Higher Trance State

    The highest form of ordinary hypnotic trance reaches its ultimate achievement in activating the subconscious mind and exploring its super-normal capabilities--quite an achievement in its own right.

     With conventional hypnotic induction, the subject can learn to enter what Frederic W. H. Myers called the "hypnotic stratum." From that high state of consciousness, ordinary persons can move to the subconscious-subliminal state.

     Only those who have been initiated into Higher Knowledge through alchemical or other mystical processes are able to move from the hypnotic stratum to Higher Consciousness--through learning to understand and develop the higher trance state.

      In the higher trance state the subconscious and conscious minds are both much more active, whereas in the deepest ordinary trance state--somnambulism--the conscious mind becomes almost entirely quiescent and is no longer in control.

      In the passage immediately below we can see the difference between an ordinary hypnotic state and a higher trance state experience.

The Dangers of the Incorrect Study of Alchemy Or Other Mystical Processes

    If we examine persons who claim to be currently practicing some form of alchemical or psychic process--for example those claiming to be able to perform astral projection (AP) or out of body experiences (OBE)--we find that almost all of them are self-deluded charlatans. In a previous essay, we examined a number of supposed OBE and AP "experts" holding forth on YouTube videos. These charlatans delude other people--for exorbitant sums of money--into believing that they--the "experts"--can locate their consciousness outside their bodies--and can teach their customers (victims) to do so as well.

    We've seen that authentic alchemy--as well as all other processes used by Perennialist adepts--results in a transmutation of a person from an ordinary self-centered, ignorant, basically illiterate individual into an altruistic, truth-seeking philosopher (lover of wisdom). A brief examination of the current crop of charlatans--of all stripes and kinds--reveals that they are ordinary self-centered, ignorant, basically illiterate persons, evincing no improvement, let alone complete transmutation into a higher type of being. The only change seems to be that they become even more greedy and grasping than before.

    Most persons at present are so psychologically immature that they're unaware that they can be manipulated by a charlatan through emotional stimuli, causing these persons to believe they have been involved in an out of body or astral projection event when it's nothing more than a heightened, subjective, counterfeit experience. A person who achieved the genuine capability of unity with his Higher Self would never consider creating a corporation or a program through which to pretend to "sell" this capability to those willing to pay exorbitant prices.

Spiritual Exercises in Alchemy

"The secrecy surrounding the science has been due to the mental and moral unpreparedness for it on the part of those content to live the normal life of the world. Save under glyph and figure, cryptic memorials and allegories, the details of the experimental process of regeneration could never be made public, nor can they now. . . And why? Because, apart from the privacy inevitably attaching to sacrosanctities, it involves perils personal and general; it lays open the most secret recesses and properties of the human organism, stripping bare the quivering roots of the physical and psychic life; it leads into contact with magnetic forces of terrific potency from the knowledge and effects of which we are at present providentially sheltered and safeguarded by the grossness of our sense-bodies and the limitations those impose upon us until such time as we become fitted to function in independence of them."

Mary A. Atwood, Hermetic Philosophy and Alchemy, 1850

    As we see from the quotation above, alchemy consists of spiritual processes that can prove dangerous to the mentally and morally unprepared. Alchemy can be disastrous to this kind of mere thrill-seeker because:
  • Alchemy "lays open the most secret recesses and properties of the human organism."

  • Alchemy strips "bare the quivering roots of the physical and psychic life."

  • Alchemy "leads into contact with magnetic forces of terrific potency"
    We've also seen that improper study and practice of mystical procedures such as out-of-body-experiences (OBEs), astral projection (AP), and alchemy can--and often does--encourage persons to become greedy, selfish, egomaniacs. All you have to do to prove this to yourself is to examine a few of the YouTube videos purporting to have been created by "experts" in OBEs, AP, or Alchemy.

    I suggest that you take these warnings seriously as you proceed with this essay.

    The understanding of alchemy as the theurgic induction of a higher trance state allows us to utilize this process in our own self-transmutation. Only a fully realized adept--an initiated Perennialist teacher--can perform the complete theurgic induction of a higher trance state in a seeker. However, it is possible to accomplish the first stages of this process through theurgic self-induction of a higher trance state, as in the exercises outlined below.

    Read aloud to yourself the theurgic affirmations, actualizing the elements they refer to.

Alchemical Exercise 1

    I am not compelled to experience my existence in the ordinary manner; I can experience my being in an extra-ordinary way through locating my consciousness in and identifying with my soul: deliberately feeling, sensing, and thinking in a new manner.

    I am making a deliberate effort to feel, sense, and think in this new manner.

    I am my soul.

    Through these theurgic affirmations, my soul is attaining the ability to realize a completely new kind of experience.

    I realize that I am not confronting the sense world in the ordinary manner.

    I am not within the ordinary sense world but actually living in a new inner world of soul experience.

    Previously, I had habitually experienced my consciousness through my senses and my thoughts.

    I had been incapable of conceiving of a supersensible life lived through consciousness of my soul.

    As a child must learn to experience the ordinary sense world, I am teaching myself to conceive of and experience a new supersensible life of the soul.

    I am deliberately feeling, sensing, and thinking in a new manner.

    I am my soul.

Alchemical Exercise 2

"Theurgic union is attained only by the perfective operation of ineffable rites correctly performed, rites which are beyond all ordinary understanding and by the power of unutterable symbols which are intelligible to Divinity."

Iamblicus, On the Mysteries

Alchemical Exercise 3

I am learning how to transmute my being and my consciousness from that of a body with a soul to that of a soul with a body.

Alchemical Exercise 4

"There is another ultimate underlying potency (αρχέ) of the soul which is superior to the whole realm of nature and generated existence. Through it we are enabled to attain communion with the superior intelligences, of being transported beyond the scenes and arrangements of this world, and of partaking of the Life Eternal and the higher powers of the heavenly ones. Through this capability we are able to set ourselves free from the domination of Fate, and are made, so to speak, the arbiters of our own destinies. For, when the more excellent parts of us become filled with energy, and the soul is exalted to communion with superior beings, then it becomes separate altogether from those conditions which keep it under the dominion of the present every-day life of the world, exchanges the present for another life, gives itself to a different order, and abandons the conventional habits belonging to the external order of things, to enter and mingle itself with the order which pertains to the higher life." 10

Alchemical Exercise 5

I am learning how to identify my being and my consciousness with my soul instead of my body.

Alchemical Exercise 6

Alchemical Exercise 7

Alchemical Processes

Alchemical Exercise 8

Becoming Aware Of Life In the Supersensible World

Alchemical Exercise 9

Making contact with Divinity


1 See the author's book, The Perennial Tradition

2 Transmutation: "Despite the soul's fall there lingers in it, although in a condition of atrophy and enchantment, a residual germ of that divine principle which once wholly actuated it; a germ capable of being so stimulated into activity as to raise the personal consciousness even to the point of unity and identity with the Universal Mind and through the healing efficacy of that principle's transmuting potencies, to effect such an organic change in the psychical, and even the physical parts of our present frail and imperfect nature as will bring them into a divinised condition."
Walter Leslie Wilmhurst, Introduction to Mary A. Atwood, Hermetic Philosophy and Alchemy, 1850, 1960.

3 The Secret of Hermetic Alchemy

4 Mary A. Atwood, Hermetic Philosophy and Alchemy, 1850, 1960

5 Vincent Bridges, "The Gnostic Science of Alchemy," Source

6 Betty White and Stewart Edward White, Across the Unknown, 1939

7 Performatory: The act of making statements of the form "I hereby . . ." or "I pronounce . . ." in which the speaker is declaring that the utterance itself has accomplished the act it describes. "I now pronounce you man and wife." "I hereby sentence you to life in prison."

8 Ceremony: An expression of shared feelings and attitudes through more or less formally ordered actions of an essentially symbolic nature performed on appropriate occasions. A ceremony involves stereotyped bodily movements, often in relation to objects (words, images, music) possessing symbolic meaning. For example, people bow or genuflect, tip hats, present arms, slaughter cattle, salute flags, and perform a myriad of other actions. Ceremonies express, perpetuate, and transmit elements of the value and sentiment system and aim at preserving such values and sentiments from doubt and opposition; moreover, they intensify the solidarity of the participants. Ceremonies are found in all societies.

9 Introduction by Walter Leslie Wilmhurst to Mary A. Atwood, Hermetic Philosophy and Alchemy, 1850, 1960

10 Iamblicus (250-325 CE), The Egyptian Mysteries

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