The operations of the alchemical tradition

Johann Rudolf Glauber (1604-1670) – An alchemist at the furnace, with diagrams of his equipment.

Italian version

Alchemy is a spiritual science that uses metallic and metallurgical symbolisms to represent the stages of transformation leading the initiate to the reintegration of essence and substance. In Ars Regia jargon, it is the transmutation of lead into gold.

The phases of the Great Work

To achieve this, the practitioner of the Alchemic Art needs an effort that we could define superhuman, and which initially consists in separating the aerial part (Mercury, the soul) from the material one (Saturn, the lead, the body), to emancipate the subtle elements from the effects of the animal organism. Following this procedure, the initiatory death, the nigredo (blackness), takes over.

Nigredo (blackness)

Mortificatio, nigredo, putrefactio. Sun and Moon conquered by death after the conjunctio – Mylias, Philosophia Reformata, 1622.

Here the conscience, freed from the support of perceived objects, sinks without guidance towards absolute darkness, the tomb of Saturn, where the terror of getting lost and never finding oneself is absolute. It is a state similar to that of deep sleep, with the difference that in this case, the purpose of the operation is to remain alert and actively participate in the dissociation of the soul from the body, up to what is called the putrefaction of matter.

The danger in this phase is that the detachment does not happen entirely due to abnormal ego reactions to safeguard one’s integrity; the psychosomatic compounds, now separated, would find themselves without a guide that associates their energies with the corresponding organs.

Another danger of the opposite sign consists in letting slip the spiritual part reached with the separation, letting oneself be dazzled by the transcendent radiance to the point of “forgetting” the body, with consequences that are anything but pleasant. For this reason, the alchemical texts advise operating with a gentle fire, in a balanced way, in a closed container – the athanor – which produces a uniform and constant heat and which prevents the essence of the air from escaping from the compound. The purpose of this part of the work consists in separating, preparing the ground, once the compounds have been purified, for the union of the masculine and the feminine, the formation of the hermetic Androgyne. Here starts the albedo.

Albedo (whiteness)

Rosa Alba – Illustrated manuscript of the 16th century of the Capucins collection de la rue Saint-Honoré – folio 25

At this stage, the ego principle can cope with the obscurity produced by the heaviness of matter. Sleep becomes perennial vigilance, the midnight sun: the clearness that occurs when the senses are silent during the night’s rest, the ability to maintain the state of consciousness during deep sleep, testifying the separation between the physical compound and that of the soul.

The albedo ends with the fixation process opposite the previous separation method: the aerial part re-joins the body, revitalises it and gives it an inner light. Alchemists call the process the White Stone, the symbolic representation of a body that has been spiritualised and a spirit that has been incarnated. The resultant is a consciousness that becomes fully aware of the vital energies that move the form, of which the non-awake

ego makes the exclusive basis of its sense of self. The solve et coagula process (dissolve and coagulate) is now complete. The initiate achieves the immortality of consciousness even after physical death because they are already free from bodily conditionings in life, maintaining its continuity even in other states of existence.

However, even this phase is not without its dangers. In the presence of not fully integrated compounds, the struggle between the two natures prevents the formation of a proper balance, in the absence of which the organism tends to strengthen its bonds. The result will be a bodily state felt like a prison or, conversely, a physical nature compromised by its inability to bear its transfiguration.

Rubedo (redness)

Solomon Trismosin (XV sec.-XVI sec.) – Splendor Solis.

Appearances can be misleading and suggest that the culmination of the transcendent experience has been reached with the previous phase. But alchemists warn against stopping at the albedo stage because perfection is not complete. The initiate has come to control the vital principle that bears the psychophysical functions. However, the ultimate essence of the spirit remains to be conquered, the condition underlining the formal manifestations and the vital impulse: the mineral state, the quintessence of the spiritual on the material plane, the foundation of all manifestation.

In fact, the principle of every identity lies in the mineral state, but not the individuation itself; at this level, it must awaken in all its purity, becoming, as it were, independent of support.

After experiencing the emptiness resulting from the separation of soul and body and having passed through the regime of Water, which amalgamates the compounds, the initiate is ready to increase the power of Fire until the residual moisture has dried. In this phase, spirit and body become one, or rather, there is the full recognition of minerality as the densest state of the spirit.

Whoever realised the rubedo cannot be considered an individual in the ordinary sense of the term; it may appear as such, but their being now transcends the plane of form, which becomes only one of its manifestations. The Philosophers’ Gold burns all impurities like a devouring fire, the final “solve et coagula” that fixes and definitively unites the primordial forces to its manifestation as dense matter. It is the Red King, an imperial symbol that expresses the dominion of nature over itself.

As in all phases of the Work, the danger lurks in a form directly proportional to the powers aroused. If the metals – the psychophysical impurities – are not adequately prepared, one risks being “electrocuted” by the revelation; we face the absolute without the self principle – in substitution of the common egoic state linked to the form – having arisen as a guide. If the initiate also overcomes these last obstacles, the Great Work is accomplished.

In these brief notes, we have tried to grasp the essence of Ars Regia without insisting on the very varied and complex symbolism that distinguishes the works on the theme. The reason for this tortuousness consisted in “deceiving” the unworthy with teachings that we should not take lightly; when not to mislead them and subsequently deride them if they became “charcoal blowers”, or rather dedicated to the search for gold through empirical means. This masking persists today when alchemy is thought to be the precursor of modern chemistry; loans can be a secondary factor because alchemy is primarily a Hermetic Science.

It is true that even today, there are alchemists who use real metals and substances for their research. But we must distinguish between those who use such instruments for their symbolic value and those who seek physical gold through empirical means. The Great Work has an ontological value, implying a change of state, and is at the same time a practical and not a mystical science. Consequently, it is not excluded a priori that, in the face of the integration between spirit and matter, it is possible to obtain the transmutation of metallic substances, certainly not for profit but to demonstrate self-realisation.

An alchemical tale according to Eastern Traditions

As a Traditional Science, alchemy shares with other doctrines and teachings the aspiration to seek non-dualism or the union between immanent and transcendent vision, without prejudice to the changing forms it takes based on epochal and cultural circumstances. In this regard, we like to recall a Zen tale about Man and the Ox [1]. It is a short story in poetic form, devoid of technicalities, but for this very reason, capable of reaching directly to the reader’s heart. It tells of a man who lost his ox; in the initial context of the story, the ox represents the vital force not yet dominated, in a state that ideally traces the three main phases of the Great Work:

  1. A man has lost his ox and is looking for it desperately. Actually, the ox has never been lost, but we have been misled due to the illusions generated by the sensitive vision.
  2. The man sees the footsteps of the ox. Thanks to the help of study and texts, we now know that there is a way leading from the multiple to the unity of things, but we are still confused about its true meaning.
  3. The ox is sighted. Now the origin of things finally appears to us, and we can harmoniously deal with them.
  4. The ox is captured. The vital instincts are controlled, but external pressures make it difficult to handle without using the whip.
  5. The ox is led to pasture. The external world no longer bothers us, but the chain of thoughts continues endlessly, confusing us. It is necessary to hold tightly the rope that binds the beast.
  6. We return home astride the ox. Once the struggle is over, the things of the world lose their power of persuasion. He goes quietly without worrying about gain and loss.
  7. The ox has disappeared, and the man remains alone. The ox is no longer there because it is only a symbol generated by the dialectical mind. Gold is separated from impurities, the light shines.
  8. Neither the man nor the ox is visible. Once dualism has ceased, everything disappears, even the very idea of dualism. The sky is empty and clear; the deception of holiness no longer has a hold.
  9. The man goes back to the source. Man is pure from the beginning and calmly observes the beginning and the end of things without identifying himself with the transformations. Discipline is no longer necessary.
  10. The man returns to town. Barefoot and shirtless, he comes and goes without leaving a trace, frequenting butchers, and drinkers. He and the others are all transformed into Buddha.


Julius EvolaLa tradizione ermetica (The Hermetic Tradition) – Rome 1971