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 The Gnostic Science of Alchemy

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PostSubject: The Gnostic Science of Alchemy   Fri Feb 01, 2008 6:10 pm

According to Zosimus of Panopolis, a fourth century alchemical apologist, the "sons of God" mentioned briefly in Genesis taught the alchemical arts to their human lovers in gratitude for having sex with them. Tertullian, an early Church Father, agreed with this and thought that these "fallen angels," or nephilim, had the evil intention of seducing human woman with the joys of "mundane pleasures." Zosimus was just repeating the accepted wisdom of the Jewish and Christian sages of that era. As he warmed to his subject though, Zosimus related the story of the first alchemist, Chemes, who wrote the teachings of the fallen angels in a book called Chema. The nephilim used this book to instruct the daughters of men in the spagyric arts and therefore the art itself came to be called Chemia. This was indeed the Greek word for alchemy, to which the Arabs added the article, al, of their own language.

As clever as this explanation is, like all statements in the study of alchemy, it should not be taken too literally. If we take it as a parable wrapped in a fable and disguised as an allegory, we would be closer to the truth.

"Al Chemia," as a name for the substance of the mystery, is both revealing and concealing of the true nature of the work. "Al-khemi," another Arabic derivation from the Egyptian for "the black," also refers to the darkness of the unconsciousness, the most prima of all materia, and to the "Black Land" of Egypt. In this sense, we can see Zosimus' "Khemes" as simply the "Black One," or Osiris. (Perhaps even taken from Osiris' original title of Khenti-Amenti, "Lord of the Western Darkness.") His "Khema" is no mere book, but the civilization of Egypt itself, its monuments, history and literature. What Zosimus' fable seems to be telling us, then, is this:

In the dim pre-history of mankind, a god-like race of beings inter-bred with humanity and taught them creative and generative forms of cultural wisdom. The first human master of this science codified the canon of its knowledge (wrote the book on it we might say) from which the children of gods and men built an advanced civilization. As we know from the Bible, the great flood wiped out this civilization. But its wisdom survived to start a new pattern of civilization in Egypt, the Black Land of the wise Osiris. Zosimus is suggesting therefore that alchemy is at the core of an ancient pre-deluge science, one that was revealed to mankind through sexual contact with semi-divine entities. Before we dismiss this out of hand as some sort of religious paraphilia, let's look at what is possibly the earliest surviving alchemical manuscript, "Isis the Prophetess to Her Son Horus" found in the Codex Marcianus, a medieval (11th century) collection of Greek fragments. This work seems to be a unique blend of Hebrew mysticism and Egyptian mythology that could only have come from Alexandria early in the first century of the Christian era. Isis tells Horus that while he was away fighting and defeating Set, she was in Hermopolis studying angelic magick and alchemy. She relates that "after a certain passing of the kairoi and the necessary movement of the heavenly sphere, it happened that one of the angels who dwelt in the first firmament saw me from above. . ." The angel, a being of the lower realm between the earth and the moon, is enflamed by passion, but can't answer her questions about alchemy. He bargains on another encounter by offering to bring a higher angel who will tell her everything she wants to know. The first angel shows Isis the magickal sign of the higher angel, a bowl of shining water and a moon sign that resembles the emblem of the moon-god Khonsu of Thebes.

At noon the next day, the angel returns with the higher angel, here called Amnael, who also finds Isis desirable and is willing to trade information for sex. He reveals the mystery of his sign and then swears her to a great oath. In this oath, we find echoes of the great mystery and the keys to its explication. "I conjure you in the name of Fire, of Water, of Air, and of the Earth; I conjure you in the name of the Height of Heaven and the Depths of Earth's Underworld; I conjure you in the name of Hermes and Anubis, the howling of Kerkoros and the guardian dragon; I conjure you in the name of the boat and its ferryman, Acharontos; and I conjure you in the name of the three necessities and the whip and the sword." After this oath, Isis is never to reveal the secret to anyone but her son, Horus, her closest friend. The knowledge will make them one, as the knowledge has now made Isis and the angel one.

And then a curious thing occurs. When the mystery is revealed, it seems strangely flat, as if something is left unsaid in the answer. Horus is told to watch the peasant, who may or may not have been the boatman Acharontos, and then is given a lecture on "as you sow, so shall you reap." Horus is told to realize "that this is the whole creation and the whole process of coming into being, and know that a man is only able to produce a man, and a lion a lion, and a dog a dog, and if something happens contrary to nature, then it is a miracle and cannot continue to exist, because nature enjoys nature and only nature overcomes nature." Isis goes on to relate that she will now give the secret of preparing certain "sands." She says: "one must stay with existing nature and the matter one has in hand in order to prepare things. Just as I said before, wheat creates wheat, a man begets a man and thus gold will harvest gold, like produces like. Now I have manifested the mystery to you." The instruction then passes to hands-on lab work in melting and preparing metals such as quicksilver, copper, lead and of course gold. At the end of this lengthy preparation, Isis exclaims: "Now realize the mystery, my son, the drug, the elixir of the widow.

What are we to make of this strange story with its curiously flat revelations? Our very earliest alchemical text presents us with the same problems and ambiguities that we will find throughout the entire alchemical corpus. There seems to be something in the very subject itself that forces its images toward the surreality of pathological metaphor. Is it merely diseased imagination or are there meanings beneath the fantasy?

Marie-Louise von Franz, one of Carl Jung's disciples, thought that this story in particular represented the emerging anima, of the individual and of the world itself. In her 1959 lecture on Alchemy at the Jung Institute, Ms. von Franz notes that "we can recognize the symbolism of the anima, for the story of Eve is even more true for the anima than just for women, and here there is the same idea expressed symbolically from the unconscious. The goddess Isis has beside her the sign of the moon. In these late times, Isis was identified with Hathor, the cow goddess and the moon goddess, and the sky goddess Nuit."

Ms. von Franz then goes on at great lengths to explicate the life giving power of the divine female, drawing a connection between instinct and archetype. From her discussion, it is hard not to see the basic alchemy of the psychological process, the internal darkness of the "black," as somehow a psychosexual one. In that sense, we can recognize the internal component of Alchemy, the key to the lost science of the last epoch, as essentially sexual. Perhaps this accounts for the ambiguity of the metaphor, its insistence on the transubstantiation of the ordinary into the sacred. Even Ms. von Franz lapses on occasion into a kind of guarded incomprehensibility, as if she dared not say it too openly.

With all of this in mind, we can see that "Alchemy" points to the ancient science, as revived by the Egyptians, and to the darkness of the unconsciousness where powerful psycho-sexual forces can be encountered and used in the process of transformation. Egyptian science, with its concern for stellar movements as the background of mythical dramas, points us another step down the road toward solving the mystery.

As we noted above, the "Isis the Prophetess" fragment is in many ways the origin point of alchemy in its modern sense. It is the first text in which mysticism becomes confused with laboratory procedures. In the text, though, it is clear that Isis first imparts a philosophical understanding, and then conducts a physical operation, supposedly along with Horus, in order to demonstrate the principle and illustrate her mastery of the process of transmutation.

We might even think of this as the Alchemical Method: revelation, demonstration and transmutation. The key then becomes the source of the revelation. Where is the information coming from? In the Isis fragment, the knowledge comes from a higher order of angel, implying at least a planetary level being, who bears the signs of Nuit and Khonsu and is called "Amnael." This angel is of course unique, appearing nowhere else in Hebrew angelology. There is a faint resemblance in name to the angel of Venus, Hanael or Anael. However, this line of conjecture quickly comes to a dead end; Isis is the Morning Star, is she learning from Herself?

An easier solution, without straining at angelic spellings, is to take the name as it is: Amn - el, the angel of Amon. This makes sense within the fragment's Egyptian background, giving us an image of the triple divinity of ancient Thebes. Isis learned the secrets of alchemy from a complex angelic being who combined the aspects of the star, Nuit, the moon, Khonsu, and the sun, Amon-Ra. The Hebrew spelling gives us a clue to the nature of this composite being. The name spelled in full adds to 123, the number of the three-part name of God, AHH YHVH ALHYS, attributed to the top three sepherot on the tree of life, Binah, Hokmah and Kether. If we break the name into Amn and ael, we get 91 and 32, both references to the Tree of Life as a whole. This composite being can be seen as the sum of all the knowledge in the Kabbalah, the very spirit of transcendence. But before it will share the secret with Isis, it swears her to a great oath. The first part of the oath creates the cube of space, a sort of matrix for reality. And then the great angel goes: "I conjure you in the name of Hermes and Anubis, the howling of Kerkoros and the guardian dragon; I conjure you in the name of the boat and its ferryman, Acharontos; and I conjure you in the name of the three necessities and the whip and the sword."

Hermes and Anubis are plain enough; they are Thoth, or Tehuti, and Anubis, two Egyptian god-forms who preside over the act of Judgment by Osiris. The "howling of Kerkoros" suggests the Keres, a dog-like form of Greek Valkyrie. Ker is fear or malice, and koros can be rendered as cross. This makes the oath conjured by the "Evil Cross" and the guardian dragon, an interesting combination. The boat and ferryman are the vehicle and the guide, a motif that would later become one of the foundational concepts of several Sufi orders. The three necessities and the whip and the sword suggest countless Masonic initiations. After this oath, which is really an initiation, the great Being tells Isis the secret: "Only Nature can overcome Nature." She demonstrates this to Horus by means of a physical, transformational process. The transmutation is successful and she produces "the drug, the elixir of the widow."

From this we can determine that the alchemical secret is three-fold, or rather three transformations in one. The inner transmutation involves the conscious refining of the psychosexual energies and fluids. The outer is the ability to use those energies to effect transmutations of physical states, including the elements. The third transmutation is that of time itself, from the darkness of the Iron Age to the splendor of the golden age. Remember, Isis could not begin the process until the stars were in the proper place.

We are now prepared to see the nature of the transmutation at the core of alchemy. It is not only a transmutation involving a personal or local effect to our environment. It is global and universal, involving the nature of time, and the times, in a completely unique way. Our earliest alchemical text confirms this perspective. A big part of the secret involved time: "...after a certain passing of the kairoi and the necessary movement of the heavenly sphere..."

As the secret was passed down through the various forms of the Company of the Widow's Son, the information fragmented. In this way, some initiates received only the internal and transformational processes without the full understanding of how the parts related to the whole of the ancient science. The most guarded secret was that of time itself, and the secret of all secrets, according to the Builder texts at Edfu, involved the beginning and end of "time."

Vincent Bridges. This article is taken from The Gnostic Science of Alchemy by Vincent Bridges ©1999. Vincent is also co-author of The Mysteries of the Great Cross at Hendaye: Alchemy and the End of Time, Destiny Books, 2003. More of his work is available at, including “The Gnostic Science of Alchemy” and “The True History of the Holy Grail and High Weirdness,” a collection of articles by Vincent Bridges and his Mysteries co-author, Jay Weidner. He was featured in The Learning Channel’s documentary Atlantis in the Andes (June 2001) and was historical consultant and on-camera tour guide for the History Channel's groundbreaking biography Nostradamus: 500 Years Later. Vincent Bridges currently lives in the Uwharrie Mountains of North Carolina, with his wife, the artist Darlene, and their four cats.


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