As the Autumn equinox approaches in the southern hemisphere, and the leaves are dancing in the wind, I have come across many references to alchemy in my travels. Alchemy, a power or process of transmutation, is most commonly associated with transforming base metals into noble metals (gold and silver), creating the Philosopher’s Stone and developing an elixir of life.
Alchemy has a long history, is found across many cultures, and has strong connections to the intuitive elements. These examples will give a feel for this fascinating subject. In Europe, alchemy’s roots were grounded in the ancient Greek philosophy that all things in the universe were formed from the elements fire, water, earth and air. In the 16th century, the influential alchemist Paracelsus described elemental beings corresponding to these elements. In China, alchemy is closely connected to Taoist forms of traditional Chinese medicine. This system is fundamentally linked to the five elements (also referred to as phases or movements) of wood, earth, water, fire and metal.
The relationship between alchemy and modern science is a telling one. On one hand the practice of alchemy contributed to the development of medicine and chemistry in Europe. On the other, the rise of these disciplines led to the decline of alchemy in the west. This is part of a bigger story about the impact of modern science on our relationship with the intuitive elements, to be told at another time.
Recently I have come across references to alchemy in many and various guises – the book ‘The Alchemist’ by Paulo Coelho, a story about finding your destiny, is in at least two lists of 30 books you ‘must read before you die’; the book ‘The New Alchemists’ shares the stories of visionaries that have made something out of nothing; my brother Rod participates in Kundalini Dance which is described as ‘sacred alchemical evolutionary keys’; my sister Ruth is working on a group project on waste management that is titled ‘Transforming waste into gold’; and the Japanese artist Mitsuo Shoji, included in the exhibition ‘The Transcendent Spirit’ (Lesley Kehoe Galleries), uses the essential elements of fire and alchemy in his paintings.
Alchemy definitely seems to be in the air, a reflection perhaps of the desire for transformation that many are seeking. Some of the references to alchemy, such as Kundalini and the works of Mitsuo Shoji, are explicitly related to the elements of fire, water, earth, air and aether/spirit. Others are more subtle. Definitely a relationship to explore further.