History of Alchemy

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Thoth, ancient Egyptian god often depicted as ...

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Alchemy is the ancient art of transformation, the science of making something better, whether it is changing lead into gold, perfecting our personality, or creating a spiritual presence within. The big difference between alchemists and modern scientists is that the alchemists believed true change could not take place unless it occurred on all three levels of reality: the physical, the mental, and the spiritual. The alchemists believed consciousness was a force in nature, and if you could purify and perfect your own consciousness, you could project that power into the world around you. In that way, they developed a spiritual technology, a science with soul. However, to hide the true nature of their work from dogmatic churchmen and other authorities, the alchemists spoke in terms of retorts, beakers, and chemicals–but what they were really talking about were changes taking place in their own bodies, minds, and souls.

The Roots of Alchemy

Alchemy dates back to a time when our two cultures of science and religion were part of one true philosophy, and the roots of alchemical theory can be traced back to a single document known throughout history as the Emerald Tablet. According to legend, the tablet was brought by mysterious visitors to Egypt over 12,000 years ago, a time the ancient texts refer to as Zep Tepi, when godlike beings roamed the earth. The author of the Emerald Tablet was a member of what the ancient Egyptians called the Group of Nine. His name was Thoth, and he was responsible for teaching humans how to interpret nature and write down their thoughts. He is credited with being the inventor of writing, mathematics, music, astronomy, architecture, and medicine. He recorded the visitors’ teachings in hundreds of books and succinctly summarized it in the Emerald Tablet.

According to the Ebers Papyrus, a 68-foot-long scroll on alchemy that is the oldest book in the world: “Man’s guide is Thoth, who bestows on him the gifts of his speech, who makes the books, and illumines those who are learned therein, and the physicians who follow him, that they may work cures.” Called the “Revealer of the Hidden” and “Lord of Rebirth,” Thoth is the guide to higher states of consciousness and initiator of human enlightenment. One of Thoth’s scrolls, The Book of Breathings, supposedly taught humans how to become gods through breath control and focusing of consciousness. Thoth, as inventor of both mathematics and music, embodied the rational powers of the masculine mind, as well as the intuitive, sensory characteristics of the feminine mind. Usually depicted as a man with the head of an ibis (a wading bird with a long curved beak symbolic of the heart and lunar energies), Thoth was a personification of the united powers of the One Mind of the whole universe. He presided over the “Weighing of the Heart” ceremony, which determines who is admitted into the afterlife. Thoth was the final judge in this process, who weighed an individual’s “true words,” the heartfelt and innermost intent in all of our thoughts and actions.

Just before the Great Flood, Thoth preserved the ancient wisdom by inscribing two great pillars and sealing sacred objects and scrolls inside them. Egyptian holy books refer to these sacred pillars, one discovered in Heliopolis and the other in Thebes, as the “Pillars of the Gods of the Dawning Light.” They were moved to a third temple where they later became known as the two “Pillars of Hermes.” These splendorous columns are mentioned by numerous credible sources down through history. The Greek legislator, Solon, saw them and noted that they memorialized the destruction of Atlantis. The pillars were what the historian Herodotus described in the temple of an unidentified Egyptian god he visited around 450 BC. “One pillar was of pure gold,” he wrote, “and the other was as of emerald, which glowed at night with great brilliancy.” In Iamblichus: On the Mysteries, Thomas Taylor quotes an ancient author who says the Pillars of Hermes dated to before the Great Flood. The mysterious pillars are also described by Achilles Tatius, Dio Chrysostom, Laertius, and other Roman and Greek historians. When Thoth’s pillars were opened, they were found to contain many manuscripts, as well as the green crystalline tablet. This was the fabled Emerald Tablet, whose philosophy and secret formula of transformation we will investigate in a later section of this module.

Thoth, god of thought and messenger of the gods, was such powerful force in human history that he became associated with a number of different personages down through the ages. So pervasive is his presence that it has even been suggested that he reincarnated or reappeared in his original form in various cultures. Around 3400 BC, he surfaced in Sumeria in the form of Athothis, a deified being of great learning and healing abilities. In 2650 BC, he was Imhotep, the designer and builder of the first pyramid and scribe at Heliopolis, who was known as “Great of Magic” and a highly regarded philosopher, astronomer, and healer. According to the secret dogma of Freemasonry, the sacred name “Hiram Ibif” refers to the first Hermes (“Hermes Ibis,” or the ibisheaded Thoth), who, according to the Masonic tradition, arrived “in the year of the world 2670.” Thoth is also associated with the Persian philosopher Zoraster around 650 BC and even with Quatzequatyl, the mercurial bird-god of the Incans and Mayans.

Thoth also has profound connections with all three Abrahamic religions. According to legend, he was a son of Adam who wrote the Emerald Tablet to show mankind how to redeem itself from his father’s sins in the Garden of Eden. Jewish mystics identify Thoth with Seth, who was the second son of Adam. They credit him with writing the tablet, which was taken aboard the ark by Noah. After the Flood, Noah supposedly hid the tablet in a cave near Hebron, where Sarah, wife of Abraham, later discovered it. Another version describes Hermes/Thoth giving the tablet to Miriam, daughter of Moses, for safekeeping. She allegedly put it in the Ark of the Covenant, along with the most sacred relics of Judaism. Some have even suggested that Moses was really Thutmoses III (Thothmoses?) and represented yet another incarnation of Thoth. Of the two tablets Moses presented to the Hebrews, only one is said to have contained the Ten Commandments (the exoteric teachings for the general public to promote social order). The other was the Emerald Tablet, which set forth the esoteric teachings designated for initiates in private.

In the Islamic tradition, Thoth is said to be Idris, the wise man described in the Koran whom God took bodily into heaven. Idris also lived before the Great Flood and wrote books that revealed the divine laws to mankind. Furthermore, some Muslims identify Idris with Enoch, who is also portrayed in Genesis as a man who was bodily assimilated into heaven. The apocryphal Book of Enoch describes his travels to different worlds and conversations with angelic beings. In the Jewish Cabala, Enoch is the Metraton, ruler of the transmutation of metals and intermediary between heaven and earth.

Thoth became known as “Hermes” to the Greeks and “Mercury” to the Romans, and some of the characteristics attributed to these versions are of special interest in alchemy. Occasionally he is pictured as a newborn babe, and was sometimes regarded as the god of fertility and rebirth. Just as Thoth was associated with the sacred number eight, the sacred number four was assigned to Hermes, suggesting he was perhaps a more physical incarnation. Nonetheless, as the messenger of the gods, Hermes is endowed with extreme mobility. He wears winged boots and carries a caduceus, which is a winged wand entwined by two serpents. The drawing at the left shows Hermes carrying the caduceus. It is from a wall painting in an Egyptian temple built in 250 BC. More ancient drawings, on the temples of Seti I (dating around 1300 BC), for instance, show the caduceus in the hands of Thoth. The caduceus became a familiar emblem in alchemical transformation and is today the symbol we associate with the healing arts and medicine. The caduceus contains considerable esoteric significance, which we will explore in a later module in this series.

Other legends connect Thoth/Hermes to Eastern religions. One describes Hermes as a philosopher traveling in Ceylon in the fifth century BC. He carried with him an Emerald Tablet that taught people how to “travel in both heaven and earth.” This Hermes spent the rest of his life wandering throughout Asia and the Middle East teaching and healing. Even more amazing, the Hindu sacred book Mahanirvanatantra states that Hermes was the same person as Buddha, and each is referred to as the “Son of the Moon” in other Hindu religious texts. In most of these incarnations, he was known as Hermes Trismegistus or Hermes “the Thrice-Greatest.”

Obviously, Thoth has become a powerful, mythic archetype in human civilization. As the supreme alchemist, Thoth really represents the ultimate archetype of the Word of God (the One Mind) creating the universe. In the ancient papyri, Thoth is called the “Source of the Word,” the one god without parents who precedes all others. He is the “Soul of Becoming” whose creative willpower fashions reality. “What emanates from the opening of his mouth,” says an ancient Egyptian text, “that comes to pass; he speaks and it is his command.” As the “Reckoner of the Universe,” Thoth is the source of all natural law; as the original “Shepherd of Men,” he is the higher mind in man that provides inspiration and inner knowledge.

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