The Very Very Basics of Alchemy
There wasn't always such a separation between art, spirituality, and (what we know now as) the sciences- Alchemical experiments really covered all the bases.
When most people think of alchemy (I mean, if they think of it at all) they think of the legendary quest to create gold or the ultimate “healing elixir”, and that IS a big part of historic and modern alchemy. But for the practical practitioners out there, more realistic chemical reactions were also the subject of alchemical experiments, like turning copper blue-green or turning sand to glass- things that if we didn’t know how they worked, we’d definitely think were magic! One of the many interpretations of the phrase "as above, so below" is the idea of intentionally creating natural reactions.
But taken metaphorically, the processes of alchemy can be applied to philosophy, creativity, curiosity, spirituality, basically anything that nudges you along on your own personal journey.
In this article I'll VERY simply touch on the 7 processes of alchemical transmutation (but note that there are other systems with different names, depending on which text you're following), and that might seem weird because alchemy is SUPER STRUCTURED and we’re so DIY ‘round these parts. But really, the 7 alchemical processes are a framework for a completely self-led practice- literal or metaphorical. It doesn't have to be linear, especially since scholars dedicate, ya know, their whole LIVES to living and studying alchemy. To put it very, very, VERY simply- alchemy is intentional transformation.
Things that count as alchemy: Cooking, mixing paint colors, cleaning, drag, the human existence...
Disclaimer: Alchemy is an ancient practice that spans basically every subject and culture, and a zillion brilliant people have written a zillion brilliant books and academic courses about every single aspect of it, so this little blog post by little ol’ me is truly just the tip of the iceberg! I owe a lot of my spiritual alchemical knowledge to Eliza Swann of The Golden Dome School, and the book “Jung and the Alchemical Imagination” by Jeffrey Raff. As with all of my articles, I try to include as many links and Google-able buzzwords as possible so you can tumble down the rabbit hole of whatever sticks out to you!
Scientifically, this stage of alchemy refers to reducing a mineral to its purest possible form, powder or ash. We love starting out with easy instructions! Emotionally, it refers to burning away the most external parts of us that don't serve our full journey, especially the parts that have been hanging around so long we barely notice it. This can be uncomfortable, but it's also a good lesson in knowing yourself outside of what the world projects on you. You know that nobody knows you better than you!
Color magick comes in strongly here: the ancient alchemists put a lot of emphasis on the transition of minerals from black (their original state) to white (ashes) to red (the final stage of achieving “the philosopher’s stone). If you're a glamour witch you could play with this theme by moving your outfits through these colors as an intentional fashion practice!
Things that count as calcination: Lighting a candle, cord-cutting ceremonies, getting your teeth deep cleaned, getting a haircut, getting rid of clutter, a real good body scrub.
You probably know what it means to literally “dissolve” something, like salt into water. This is the stage when we're adding something watery to those ashes we just created to see what new substances can emerge. Witches know that water= emotion and the subconscious, so during this process you could seek out emotions you don't usually engage with and see what they bring up. Or if you're just here to get hands-on, you can be an alchemist by playing with the actual act of dissolution to create something new and delicious- soup, anyone?
*This is my favorite stage of alchemy, and I revisit it a lot by emphasizing nostalgia in my practice. It might be my Scorpio Moon...
Things that count as dissolution: Making soup, working with watery potions, floating in salt water, listening to music that makes you cry, reading your old journals/Tweets/Facebook statuses (yes even the cringey ones!! Especially those!!) and reflecting on how you felt then and how you might still carry that now.
Okay by now we're in a lot of pieces, but it's okay! In the stage of separation, we're taking a step back to examine the effects of our experiments, and the spaces between our mind and body and spirit and outside influences and all that stuff. This process honors the holistic nature of alchemy because it’s kind of a resting place where we're not judging ourselves, we're just observing from a safe distance all those parts we just uncovered. Kind of a taking inventory stage.
Things that count as separation: Yoga poses like Down Dog and Child’s Pose, not talking to another human for a whole day, dream journaling, making lists.
Now we're actually fusing the parts of us that maybe felt in conflict before. Even when it's weird, there's always some throughline that connects the contrary parts of ourselves, because surprise, we're a whole person whether we wanna be or not! No one exists in a vaccuum. This is kind of a Chopped Challenge, if you will, and you can take that as literally as you want.
Things that count as conjunction: Stretching your muscles when you don't feel like moving, upcycling, trying something you’ve always wanted to try but didn't think was "your thing", creating your own Chopped Challenge with things you have in your kitchen.
Now that we've sat with all the parts of ourselves for a while and picked the best parts to move forward with, it's time to add the Universe back in and see what happens- and that can be weird in a lotta ways. This stage is basically a test drive of the Self you've created in the previous four stages. In literal fermentation fresh ingredients mix with the microflora of the air and through all kinds of chemical reactions both rot and thrive at the same time. That sounds brutal... and honestly it kind of is? This stage is similar to Calcination except instead of intentionally burning calcified parts away, whatever doesn't work is gonna rot on its own. Orrrrr it's a moment to honor the process of literal decomposition (sometimes this stage is called "putrefaction")! Garden Alchemists to the front!
Things that count as fermentation: Making sourdough or pickles, composting, collaging, debuting a whole new you and being gently critical about how that made you feel.
The fermenting stage got rid of anything that wasn't working, so Distillation is another chance to really refine what we've been working on. Distillation is when a liquid is boiled until its vapor can be collected as the purest essence (that's how essential oils are made!) so you could think of spiritual distillation as an "aha!" moment when your vision truly comes together. Or a "fuck it" moment when you've truly moved past the bullshit.
Things that count as distillation: Making your own liquor or essential oils, collecting salt from seawater, creating art for your eyes only, one more purge of clutter.
Okay this one sounds gross but it's basically the final stage of healing when the scab forms, when the work you've done turns permanent. Your sense of self is fixed, unchangeable. We could call it "crystallization" instead of coagulation, if you want. This is like, "I know who I am and what I like and I will not be moved". Yes that's a very big goal, so don't pressure yourself to complete or even get to this stage quickly- it's a lifetime of work! Or it's a fun science experiment for Virgo season.
*I know I know, Winnie Sanderson is not experiencing a moment of enlightenment here, but that's the visual that kept coming to mind!
Things that count as coagulation: Mod-podging, growing your own crystals, tending to a wound, living your best life.
And so friends, that's alchemy! Well basically, in a nutshell! Each stage flows into the next pretty organically, but remember that alchemy isn't always linear. You should spend as long as you need to with each process, revisiting if needed and creating your own framework. As John Potanus said about alchemical scholars who only read without doing: "Those who read... all other Philosophers shall never come to an understanding of it though they live one hundred million years; for this fire may not be discovered but by the sole and profound meditation of the mind, following which one will understand the books, and not otherwise."
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