The History of Alchemy: From Isaac Newton to Joe Rogan / by Sam Abelow

The strange images of the European Alchemists; the salamander on fire is common representation. © Adam McLean 1999-2010. Prints are avilable to buy of this Coloured Alchemical Sequence

Joe Rogan’s recent podcast, with Duncan Russell touched on the topic of Alchemy and ancient knowledge. They were very non-specfically baffled by contemplating what these geniuses from teh past could've found interesting in "turning lead to gold." They had some hint that because a brilliant mind, like Isaac Newton, would study esoteric Christianity and Alchemy, that there must be something to it,

I decided to write out my map of these lesser known ideas, gathered and pieced together by researching ancient history, as well as reading many of the more modern thinkers who have been influenced and written about Alchemy, spirituality, esoteric Christianity and so forth.

Predominantly, there won’t be citations or references to where I have gathered this knowledge, so you can take it as you please.

Lets Start from Way Back

In the ancient past — Egypt for example — there were a class of people who had profound knowledge. Their knowledge came from some much more distant past (before the ice age) and the difference between that knowledge and the type people seek today, is that the ancient knowledge was always infused with what one could call a “spiritual” perspective.

This is something that a purely logical mind can not grasp today; it takes an openness to consider these ideas. The “spiritual,” fundamentally has to do with the irrational dimension of our reality; the “psychological” or “inner” reality. This essence of our reality, in that it is intimately interconnected and organized beautifully, has such profound meaning; the realization of this meaning is a large aspect of what people have called “enlightenment.”

Now, just like it is today, in the ancient past there had always been classes of people (based either on wealth, intellect, or creativity). Historically, only few were privy to the powerful knowledge of the cosmos and inner world. It was guarded fore a variety of reasons, including the protection of common people. Powerful knowledge can be harmful in the wrong, irresponsible, immature person. That is why there has always been a tradition of initiation and secrecy.

Today, the most intelligent and creative people are often put to work for advancements in technology, computers and science; this drives “productivity” and empirical knowledge.

The ancients also had this interest, but always complimented the desire for outward technology, with the desire for “enlightenment,” or spiritual awakening, realization, redemption; the desire for touching the ineffable.

So, In Egypt the classes with power and knowledge built monuments to display the depth of their knowledge, which had been handed down since time immemorial. [Rogan touches upon this at 25 min in to the podcast]

These early people spent mass resources to construct, in stone, their metaphysical, scientific, esoteric knowledge. This encoding, does several things: It makes their spiritual knowledge objectified into form, which makes it more solid. These monuments stand as artifacts to future generations. But more so, these spaces can be used to alter consciousness. The same way we use specialized spaces like theaters, or concert halls, with laser lights and music, the ancients used architecture to effect one’s experience.

I do not own the copyright to this image

I do not own the copyright to this image

The Threads of Wisdom

The knowledge from Egypt was passed on, first through the Greeks. For example Pythagorus, who documented his travels to Egypt and later claimed the discovery of the Musical System. This is a conceptualization of the tones, arranged mathematically, in a of ratios that create scales. To the ancient philosophers this was a marriage of spirituality and physicality. Today we can see that every human, with a soul and body can be moved and transported by the expression of music.

Since prehistory, the Egyptian knowledge also mixed with knowledge from the East. Independently there was knowledge, probably also before the end of the ice age, from ancient India.

The Eastern knowledge, known as Vedanta, was much more intangible and mental, subtle and experiential. This is hard for some to understand, accept (and it doesn’t need to be accepted on a rational level. This is what they felt; this is what they experienced. At least metaphorically/psychologically it has truth. 

Over thousands of years the Yogis of India — those who held onto the oral tradition of alchemical transformation, bodily and spiritual transformation — learned, through lineage, how to transcend the body and mind, how to make their form ascend into then non-physical, in order to have direct experience of God/The Mystery/The Unknown/The Plethora. 

The experiential knowledge of these seekers was passed down and communicated through Guru/master to disciple, but was also documented in books, which were shared with Muslims (who became Sufi mystics — see the poetry of Hufiz for example). [image from smithsonian]

The connections between esoteric Egypt, Greece and India are not something linear, or clearly defined. It is a fluctuating stream of information and ideas, that isolate from each other and develop into sects, groups, schools, which all had specific perspectives, some of which more “effective” or “true” than others. Some faded, some remained over the centuries.

From the "Ocean of Life" book, written to inform Muslims Sufis of Yoga practices.

These images are from the Smithosonian exhibition "Yoga and The Art of Transformation."


Esoteric Western Thought

I have not mentioned esoteric Jewish knowledge. It is apparent, that since the origins of Judaism and the Jewish people, there was a priestly class. This was the most wealthy and most intelligent people of whom knew of the secret meaning of their scriptures.

The Jews also built temples. As in in the Egyptian tradition, they made monuments to their depth of knowledge of the universe and man (physics and psychology).

The Jewish people’s power didn’t last long. Their greatest monument — Solomn’s Temple — fell to outsiders after only a series of three Kings.

A millennia after that fall, when Christianity began to rise, we see another example of the division between esoteric teachings and public teachings.

Many people do not understand the Gnostic origins of Christianity. It is an historical fact, as discovered in the jars of Naag Hamadi, that in the early centuries of Christianity, there were two main sects: those we call The Gnostics, and the orthodoxy (see Elaine Pagel’s books).

One of the most important beliefs of The Gnostics was the belief in direct experience of God/Christ. They believed each individual had the right to touch God/the infinite and understand the mystery/God.

The orthodoxy said that it was the priests who came before the people, as intermediaries before God.

You can guess which side won and gained power. Those seekers who weren’t wiped out were forced to go underground.

Ancient books were put in jars and left in a cave in 350 AD

Translations of the intact writing, revealed alternative gospels, suppressed by early orthodoxy. These dozens of books were labeled Gnostic by researchers.


The Enigmatic Beginnings of European Alchemy

Over the many centuries following the founding of Orthodox Christianity (the Council of Nicea deciding on which books would be included in The Bible, in 325 AD) unapproved knowledge continued to be spread.

The Church’s own monk-soldiers, the Knight’s Templars, crusaded to Jerusalem and took hold of the city, and Solomon’s Temple.

There the Knight’s Templars mixed with Sufis and the Templars learned more of the esoteric Eastern traditions.

They carried this knowledge back to Europe. Over the three centuries their orders existed, the Templars accumulated a mass of wealth and knowledge.

When the Templars were disbanded and wiped about, in 1306, by Philippe IV of France, those who were left were forced to created secret societies, clubs and sects.

Some of these groups later became the Scottish Rite Freemason and later, by 1600, great thinkers and academic men, formed groups such as the Rosicrucianists. This is the origins of European Alchemy as we know it today.

These groups mixed Egyptian, Jewish, Yogic and Gnostic ideas into a spiritual-psychological study, and framework for self-transformation and enlightenment (self analysis, redemption, integration and ultimately increased consciousness).

Of course, some of the most learned and creative minds of the Classical Era were involved with sort of knowledge (including Vermeer, DiVinci and many others). Joe and Duncan are baffled by Isaac Newton’s studies of these fields, but through my exposition you may see why it’s not so strange.

It is a matter of fact, that these great scientific thinker’s kept their studies secret because blasphemy was punishable by death. Still, there were books of European Alchemy that were created and passed along.

Meanwhile, in India, Yoga remained mainly an oral (master to disciple) tradition, which had spread to China. From India there were such texts as the Yoga Sutras and in China there were texts like The Secret of the Golden Flower.

Alchemical books by Rosicrusionists, used strange imagery, symbolism and coded language in order to disguise there advanced and unorthodox ideas. They can easily be interpreted at nonsensical by the layperson, but are rich in meaning when deciphered.

In the Chinese Alchemical-Yoga book, "Secret of the Golden Flower," describes the transformation of the body and soul, via meditation and the achievement of immortality. This is one metaphor for "lead to gold."


The Incredible Knowledge Sitting on the Shelf

All of these books teach moral and spiritual values, which in time transform the man who practices them.

In the Modern Era, it was Carl Jung, who after discovering the Collective Unconscious and having a confrontation of his own with the great mystery, happened upon European and Chinese Alchemy, as a confirmation of his ideas.

Carl Jung made a 30 year study of this tradition and eventually wrote the masterwork “Mysterium Coniunctionis,” which interprets and relates everything a modern person would need to know about the ancient teachings and what it means from a scientific-psychological perspective.

Through the adaptation and understand of these ancient methods, it is possible to make one’s self more conscious in this day and age. The resources are available and the knowledge, the wisdom, the traditions are there. Now, we have only our own ignorance and laziness to blame for our silly lack of coherent, balanced integration of all aspects of reality (rational and irrational; physical and spiritual).

So, while the shiny, bright, seductive red sports cars, porn actresses, Instagram food exhibitions, Kardashian superficial melodrama, hold our attention, the greatest mysteries of the universe are available; they have been pointed to and great mind’s have worked tirelessly to formulations methods of achieving integration of one’s being, on all levels. It is a matter of discipline and substance of character.

Those who are ready will hear the call.

Carl Jung documented his confrontation with the irrational, infinitely creative, mysterious and autonomous inner cosmos in "The Red Book." He spent the following decades drawing parallels from his own experience, to that of the European Alchemists and Chinese meditators.

Carl Jung spent decades deciphering and studying European Alchemy. He discovered that the ultimate goal was the union of opposites, within the psyche, in order to create a fully developed man. In the Jungian Analytic process people under a process of excavating their unconscious, in order to fully balance their being (both the conscious and unconscious, the masculine and feminine, the spiritual and earthly and so forth).

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