Journal of the Western Mystery Tradition
No. 9, Vol. 1, Autumnal Equinox 2005
Herbal Alchemy on a Budget
by Alex Sumner
In 2003, I attempted to start practising practical Alchemy for the first time. Now there appear to be several widely-held beliefs about Alchemy, namely:
However, in the course of my investigation into the subject, I discovered that:
Your humble author did not personally prove to his own satisfaction that all of these assertions are in fact true. This is because I soon realised that there is one major obstacle to the practice of Alchemy becoming more popular, to wit: one must really have the equivalent of a fully fledged Chemistry lab at ones disposal, in order to carry out Alchemy safely, or indeed at all. A distillation train, fume-cupboard, a small kiln, an incubator, infinite glassware, a wide assortment of chemicals such as Absolute Alcohol, Potassium Carbonate, Acetic Acid, Citric Acid, Nitric and Hydrochloric acids, Sodium Hydroxide, and more must all be to hand and this does not include the raw materials which would be used to form the basis of a given Alchemical operation.
There is a traditional saying in Alchemy: “One must have Gold in order to create Gold.” Whilst some might be inclined to think that by “Gold” is meant some Solar / Tiphereth / etc concept, I would say it actually refers to the amount of money required to successfully finance a career in Alchemy!
However there is a small portion of the vast subject of Alchemy which is just about accessible to a practitioner with a small amount or even no equipment: it is commonly known as the Prima Opus (“First Work”), and is concerned with the vegetable kingdom (mainly Herbs). It is the form of Alchemy taught to beginners, as it introduces them to many concepts which they will be able to apply later to the Animal and Mineral kingdoms – the subjects of the Secunda and Tertia Opera respectively. It was in this area which I myself began my explorations in the field of Alchemy, and which forms the basis of this article.
On the other hand, it appears that the Whare Ra temple of the Stella Matutina taught the Prima at least: I have not discovered whether they went further or not. I have in my possession a contemporary document created by a member of the Golden Dawn in which they recommend that beginners to Alchemy attempt the Prima by creating, in a rather simplified way, at least seven “Planetary Tinctures” i.e. by selecting one herb for each of the seven planets of classical Astrology. Inspired by this, I myself attempted to create my own set of seven Planetary Tinctures.
I will not be able to go farther without employing Alchemical vocabulary. A substance is truly Alchemical when it becomes what is known as a “Quintessence”. If one were to ask an Alchemist what a Quintessence is, he would say it is a substance in which the “Volatile” forms of a thing’s “Mercury”, “Sulphur” and “Salt” have been combined together, and after a period of “Cohobation” they have formed into a new state which is literally greater than the sum of the parts. Thus, when we are talking about the Prima, it is possible to translate these terms as follows:
Does this mean that a vegetable Quintessence can be formed simply by buying pure Alcohol, essential Oil and Potash from a shop and just mixing them together? The purist would have to answer a resounding “No” for a variety of reasons to do with the fact that a real Alchemist would view his Art in a completely different way to that of the ordinary Chemist.
Firstly, the Alchemical process is vital part of the overall effect. Whereas a Chemist would simply view the chemicals and the experiment as something separate or other than himself, the Alchemist views the Work as an interaction between his being and the materials he is using. Thus, for an Alchemist, the act of carrying out an operation in the proper Alchemical manner inevitably improves him Spiritually at the same time as achieving the desired physical result.
Secondly, the Alchemist believes that there are properties of Matter that are very real, but are outside the bounds of what is recognised by conventional chemistry. These are more than just “subtle” properties as might be championed by clairvoyants. Alchemists believe that certain physical results can occur when materials are subjected to unusual processes: however, if one were to describe these processes to a Chemist, he would fail to see how any kind of chemical reaction would take place at all. For example: I know of one Alchemist who alleges that it is possible to extract a subtle essence from Potash, using pure Alcohol. This subtle essence is therefore the “Salt” which makes up the third quintessential item in the famous “Prima Ens Melissa” or Elixir Vitae formula described by Paracelsus. This incidentally is why it would be dangerous to say that the Salt in the Prima is only Potash, whereas it would appear that in fact it is the subtle essence of Potash which is more important.
Thirdly, there is still a great deal of Magia in Alchemy. For example, vegetable Mercury which has been prepared by infusing the Herb in water, adding yeast and fructose, fermenting it and distilling the end product Seven times would have what is known as the Signature of that Herb on it. Buying pure alcohol from a shop (or mail order) does not have this advantage, although it might have at least some signature of the vegatable kingdom on it. This, in addition, is the reason why sea-salt cannot be used in the Prima work, as it comes from the Mineral kingdom, and cannot really be said to have any kind of vegetable signature upon it.
So what then is a tincture? It is an Alchemical preparation in liquid form, such that one may for example take a few drops diluted in a glass of water and ingest it. An alchemical tincture is “Quintessential” because it contains the three principles of a herb – it’s Mercury, Sulphur and Salt – combined and cohobated together. It is also possible to have a metallic tincture, in which an ingestible medicine is created from a metal. Note that most metals, if they were to be ingested, would actually be very poisonous. This then is one of the meanings of Transmutation: through Alchemy it is possible to transmute a poisonous metal, into a beneficial substance.
I chose seven herbs to work on: one for each planet. These were
I obtained these in their dried forms, except Parsley, which I bought fresh. Frater Albertus however recommends that if one does pick the fresh herb, one should first dry it before using it: otherwise one would have to use about four times as much fresh herb as one would normally use dry.
Basil, Parsley and Mint are obtainable easily enough from any supermarket: the others by mail order.
Now the Golden Dawn prescribes a ceremonial form for conducting Alchemical experiments: unfortunately I did not follow it. Instead, I first started out in each case by consecrating the herb to be used as a Talisman of the Planetary force to which it was assigned. The act of consecrating the herb in this way thus tied my consciousness in to the spiritual forces behind the alchemical operation from the outset. The form of the ceremony in each case followed the usual Z2 outline of the Golden Dawn: I was also able to incorporate a number of traditional Graeco-Egyptian (and other) invocations. So for example:
This I was able to use as a general invocation in all herbal workings. It is from the Greek Magical Papyri, and is thus cognate with such rituals as the famous “Bornless Invocation”.
At this point, if one were a proper Alchemist, one’s next step would be to take the consecrated herb and convert into its “Chaos” form. A “Chaos” is one in which all the elements are mixed together in their unrefined form – e.g. the fermented Herbal mixture as mentioned above. From this Chaos are separated the four elements: “Fire”, “Water”, “Air” and “Earth”. These are actually names for actual substances to be found within the Chaos. The four Elements are then purified, so that their volatile parts (which make up the Principles) are separated from the fixed parts (which are either poisonous or redundant). These Principles are then combined and cohobated to form the Quintessence (see below).
There is however a supposedly simpler method that is used by those with basic or no lab equipment: the herb is macerated for a time with a quantity of vegetable Mercury (i.e. ethanol). This can be done with a soxhlet extractor in a lab – in which case it takes a relatively short time – or it can more simply be done by placing the herb + Mercury in a sealed mason jar, and leaving it in a warm place away from direct sunlight. If the latter path is followed, this will take some two weeks. I used 4 fl. oz of Mercury to 1 oz. of dried herb. When I did this, every day I would shake up the said jars whilst vibrating the divine name associated with the “talisman” in question – so that all the while I was concentrating on the original consecration ceremony.
Figure 1 - An aoverview of the Alchemical process. Artwork by the author.
For those that are unable to prepare their Mercury in the traditional Alchemical way, take note: the closest thing to pure Alcohol which is supposedly fit for human consumption is Everclear grain spirit in the USA, or Knockeen Hills Irish Poteen – the Gold Version - in the UK.
The liquid is then filtered from the solid. What one now has is a mixture of Mercury, and the Fire (mixed volatile and fixed Sulphur) of Herb on the one hand, and the Earth of the Herb on the other.
The Salt is the easiest to prepare – though one should do this out of doors as there are a lot of fumes involved. Place the Earth in a suitable container and ignite it. Once it has burnt out, grind it as finely as possible with a pestle and mortar and place it in one’s Athanor – a furnace which is kept at a very high heat. Periodically remove the Earth, re-grind and replace in the Athanor. The whole process of subjecting the Earth to a very high heat in order to purify it is known as “Calcination”. After several hours of constant heat in the Athanor, the remains of the Earth will go through black to a shade of light grey. At the point where the ash will not get any lighter no matter how hard it is heated, remove it in its container from the Athanor and allow it to cool for a moment. Using a coffee-filter paper and a funnel, percolate boiling distilled water over the ash and collect the solute. This you evaporate off using a “Bain-Marie” (water bath). The Salt will condense as a fine white powder on the surface of the evaporating dish.
Figure 2 - An "Athanor" for the hard-up but resourceful Alchemist!
Note that if you found yourself with some sort of brownish powder, and not white, this would indicate that the Salt is adulterated with either gross Earth or Fixed Sulphur, both of which are unwanted. The way to rectify this would be to recalcine the mixture, going through the above process at least one further time. This may seem like a laborious process, but bear in mind that not for no reason did Frater Albertus put a large sign above his Athanor: “PATIENCE!”
Once the pure Salt is obtained, carefully scrape it off the evaporating dish and place in a clean, dry, water tight and air-tight container for later. From my experiments I estimate that working in this way, one can expect approximately ¼ or ½ a teaspoon of Salt, if one starts from 1oz of Herb: i.e. a very tiny proportion of the whole mass.
The Mercury / Fixed Sulphur / Volatile Sulphur is prepared in two stages. Firstly, the Mercury is separated by distillation. The “Fire”(Fixed / Volatile Sulphur) – which will be an oily sludge type substance at this stage – is itself purified by a type of Calcination, but with a far, far gentler heat than that used for preparing the Salt from the Earth. I used a Bain-Marie for this. Care must be taken as the fumes given off by the fixed Sulphur may be noxious.
However, if one does not have a proper distillation train, one is going to have the face the fact that the only way to accomplish this stage is to evaporate off both the Fixed Sulphur and the Mercury, and replace the latter with fresh Mercury after one has derived the volatile Sulphur. Once one has ones volatile Sulphur, one should then dissolve it with the Mercury, and then add the Salt to the solution. This mixture is then sealed in a mason jar again, and kept in a warm place for at least another two weeks, whilst it “Cohobates”.
Cohobation is a uniquely alchemical process: it is not understood by chemistry, in that a chemist would fail to see the point of it. And yet it is through the Cohobation stage that the Alchemist claims that the three Principles somehow gel together and form a Quintessence: a substance which is Spiritually more advanced and greater than the sum of its parts. In the present case, that Quintessence would be a perfected Spagyric tincture. However, by using different quantities of the Principles, by varying the manner in which they are combined, and by cohobating them for a lot longer time, it would theoretically be possible to create a “Vegetable Stone” i.e. the nearest equivalent in the Vegetable Kingdom to the Stone of the Wise.
There is a certain way for detecting whether one has succeeded in creating a Quintessence – but one which Chemistry would never be able to understand. The Spiritual qualities of a true Quintessence can be detected by a Psychic. One can even derive benefit from a Quintessence simply by being in its presence.
Once the Tincture is Cohobated, it is ready for use. It can be imbibed by taking a few drops in a glass of wine or distilled water per day. A curious fact is that once one has gone through the Alchemical process with regard to e.g. St John’s Wort, one may refer to the tincture as “Philosophical Sol”, or “Philosophical Gold”. This is a detail of the conventions of terminology used by Alchemists. If something is referred to as “Philosophical Gold”, or “Philosophical Silver”, etc, it does not mean literal Gold or Silver. Instead it refers to a substance which has the “signature” of Gold or Silver upon it. Likewise for Philosophical Lead, Philosophical Tin, etc. By carrying out the Alchemical process in the Spirit in which it is intended, we are able to put this “signature” on to the substance in question.
This potentially unlocks a puzzle of the old grimoires. It was said that to make the seals of various spirits one should use the Metals of the Planets to which those spirits are ascribed. But … how exactly does one make a Seal out of, say, Quicksilver? To the Alchemist, the answer now becomes blindingly obvious. Take a piece of parchment, and soak it in a Tincture that you have made from a herb which is under the presidency of the planet Mercury. Remove the parchment and allow it to dry. You have turned the parchment into a piece of “Philosophical Quicksilver”, and as such you may use it to create the Seal of the Mercurial spirit if you so wish. This is but one application of Alchemy to the problem. It is also possible in the Metallic Work to take actual Quicksilver, and create a safe, non-toxic and even beneficient tincture from it. This too would serve purpose admirably. This is sure the true method of using “fluid condensers” in magic: the version proposed by Franz Bardon is only a pale imitation.
Incidentally, the amount of Mercury, Sulphur and Salt one can ever derive from a herb (or a metal) varies: and one can in fact get an indication of the relative amounts from the Sign of the Planet to which it is assigned.
One can tell how much of each principle one can expect from the order in which these three components appear in the appropriate sign relating to it. For example:
Take for example, Lemon Balm, Melissa Officinalis. This is herb is traditionally assigned to the planet Jupiter. One can derive Mercury and Salt from it: one can even derive a lot of Fixed Sulphur; but the Volatile Sulphur thereof is extremely difficult to come by. It thus fits the pattern suggested above of a material which is Jovial in nature. The Prima Ens Melissa, previously mentioned, made from Lemon Balm as its name suggests. Perhaps that is the real reason the Elixir Vitae is so hard to come by – because it is so hard to extract the Volatile Sulphur from the Lemon Balm plant.
I will now append a table summarising the results of my own experiments:
Moreover there is far more to the Prima Opus than simply the creation of Herbal tinctures. For one thing there is the Prima Ens Melissa, already mentioned. I have attempted this once, but like creating a tincture from Lemon Balm, I found it very easy to extract fixed Sulphur from the plant, but almost impossible to extract the volatile Sulphur – the Ens itself.
Then again there is the matter of attempting to create a Vegetable Stone: which if successful, would theoretically catalyse the extraction of volatile Sulphur from herbs in future alchemical experiments. I intend to attempt all of this once I have access to a full laboratory set-up.
FRATER ALBERTUS, 1987. The Alchemist's Handbook: Manual for Practical Laboratory Alchemy. York Beach, ME: Red Wheel / Weiser.
BARDON, F., 2001. Initiation into Hermetics: the Way of the True Adepts. 1st paperback ed. Salt Lake City, UT: Merkur.
BETZ, H.D. (ed.), 1992. The Greek Magical Papyri in translation. Volume one: texts, 2nd ed. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
CONWAY, D., 1976. The Magic of Herbs. Newton Abbot, England: Readers Union.
CROWLEY, A., ed, 1903. The Goetia of the Lesser Key of Solomon. S.L. MacGregor Mathers (trans.) electronic edn. http://www.hermetic.com/browe-archive/pdf/goetia.pdf: The Hermetic Library.
CROWLEY, A. 1906. 777. electronic edn. http://www.hermetic.com/crowley/libers/liber777.pdf: The Hermetic Library.
UNKNOWN. Golden Dawn Correspondence Course Lesson 45 – Herbal Alchemy, n.d., unpub.
VALENTINE, B.,1678. The Triumphal Chariot of Antimony. Kirkringer, Theodore (ed.). electronic edn. http://levity.com/alchemy/antimony.html: The Alchemy Website.
2. The term "Spagyric" means "to separate and combine"; "solve et coagula"; and refers to the fact that the Principles are first separated, purified, and then re-combined together. The term was originally by Paracelsus, and does not apply solely to herbal work, but to Alchemy generally.
5. For a description of “Regulus of Antimony”, see Valentine, 1678. The Dry Path itself is the method supposedly used by Flamel, and is dealt with in detail by the modern alchemical group the Philosophers of Nature.
6. I know this document as Golden Dawn Correspondence Course Lesson 45. Its authorship is anonymous although I have reason to believe that it was written by a member of the Whare Ra temple. One of the few definite clues is that whoever wrote acknowledges he(?) was familiar with the work of Frater Albertus.
7. Or at any rate at least twice: once to separate the “Air” (alcohol) from the “Chaos” (fermented mixture); and a second time to extract the “Subtle Mercury” (pure Ethanol) from the “Gross” (i.e. impurities such as Methanol, which are poisonous).