The Hermetic Cabinet:


(by Alexander Roob)


see also Encyclopaedia Britannica "ALCHEMY", "MYSTICISM"

(Encyclopaedia Britannica)


Among other aims, tried to transform base metals such as lead or copper into silver or gold and to discover a cure for disease and a way of extending life.

Alchemy was the name given in Latin Europe in the 12th century to an aspect of thought that corresponds to astrology, which is apparently an oldertradition. Both represent attempts to discover the relationship of man to thecosmos and to exploit that relationship to his benefit. The first of these objectives may be called scientific, the second technological. Astrology is concerned with man's relationship to “the stars” (including the members of the solar system); alchemy, with terrestrial nature. But the distinction is far from absolute, since both are interested in the influence of the stars on terrestrial events. Moreover, both have always been pursued in the belief that the processes human beings witness in heaven and on earth manifest the will of the Creator and, if correctly understood, will yield the key to the Creator's intentions.
Nature and significance

That both astrology and alchemy may be regarded as fundamental aspects of thought is indicated by their apparent universality. It is notable, however, that the evidence is not equally substantial in all times and places. Evidence from ancient Middle America (Aztecs, Mayans) is still almost nonexistent; evidence from India is tenuous and from ancient China, Greece, and Islāmic lands is only relatively more plentiful. A single manuscript of some 80,000words is the principal source for the history of Greek alchemy. Chinese alchemy is largely recorded in about 100 “books” that are part of the Taoist canon. Neither Indian nor Islāmic alchemy has ever been collected, and scholars are thus dependent for their knowledge of the subject on occasional allusions in works of natural philosophy and medicine, plus a few specifically alchemical works.

Nor is it really clear what alchemy was (or is). The word is a European one, derived from Arabic, but the origin of the root word, chem, is uncertain. Words similar to it have been foundin most ancient languages, with different meanings, but conceivably somehow related to alchemy. In fact, the Greeks, Chinese, and Indians usually referred to what Westerners call alchemy as “The Art,” or by terms denoting change or transmutation.

The chemistry of alchemy

Superficially, the chemistry involved in alchemy appears a hopelessly complicated succession of heatings of multiple mixtures of obscurely named materials, but it seems likely that a relative simplicity underlies this complexity. The metals gold, silver, copper, lead, iron, and tin were all known before the rise of alchemy. Mercury, the liquid metal, certainly known before 300 BC, when it appears in both Eastern and Western sources, was crucial to alchemy. Sulfur, “the stone that burns,” was also crucial. It was known from prehistoric times in native deposits and was also given off in metallurgic processes (the “roasting” of sulfide ores). Mercury united with most of the other metals, and the amalgam formed coloured powders (the sulfides) when treated with sulfur. Mercury itself occurs in nature in a red sulfide, cinnabar, which can also be made artificially. All of these, except possibly the last, were operations known to themetallurgist and were adopted by the alchemist.

The alchemist added the action on metals of a number of corrosive salts, mainly the vitriols (copper and iron sulfates),alums (the aluminum sulfates of potassium and ammonium),and the chlorides of sodium and ammonium. And he made much of arsenic's property of colouring metals. All of these materials, except the chloride of ammonia, were known in ancient times. Known as sal ammoniac in the West, nao sha in China, nao sadar in India, and nushādir in Persia and Arabic lands, the chloride of ammonia first became known to the West in the Chou-i ts'an t'ung ch'i, a Chinese treatise of the 2nd century AD. It was to be crucial to alchemy, for on sublimation it dissociates into antagonistic corrosive materials, ammonia and hydrochloric acid, which readily attack the metals. Until the 9th century it seems to have come from a single source, the Flame Mountain (Huo-yen Shan) near T'u-lu-p'an (Turfan), in Central Asia.

Finally, the manipulation of these materials was to lead to the discovery of the mineral acids, the history of which began in Europe in the 13th century. The first was probably nitric acid, made by distilling together saltpetre (potassium nitrate) and vitriol or alum. More difficult to discover was sulfuric acid, which was distilled from vitriol or alum alone but required apparatus resistant to corrosion and heat. And most difficult was hydrochloric acid, distilled from common salt or sal ammoniac and vitriol or alum, for the vapours of this acid cannot be simply condensed but must be dissolved in water.

“Transmutation” is the key word characterizing alchemy, and it may be understood in several ways: in the changes that are called chemical, in physiological changes such as passing from sickness to health, in a hoped-for transformation from old age to youth, or even in passing from an earthly to a supernatural existence. Alchemical changes seem always to have been positive, never involvingdegradation except as an intermediate stage in a process having a “happy ending.” Alchemy aimed at the great human “goods”: wealth, longevity, and immortality.

Alchemy was not original in seeking these goals, for it had been preceded by religion, medicine, and metallurgy. The first chemists were metallurgists, who were perhaps the most successful practitioners of the arts in antiquity. Their theories seem to have come not from science but from folklore and religion. The miner and metallurgist, like the agriculturalist, in this view, accelerate the normal maturation of the fruits of the earth, in a magico-religious relationship with nature. In primitive societies the metallurgist is often a member of an occult religious society.

But the first ventures into natural philosophy, the beginnings of what is called the scientific view, also preceded alchemy. Systems of five almost identical basic elements were postulated in China, India, and Greece, according to a view in which nature comprised antagonistic, opposite forces—hot and cold, positive and negative, and male and female; i.e., primitive versions of the modern conception of energy. Drawing on a similar astrological heritage, philosophers found correspondences among the elements, planets, and metals. In short, both the chemical arts and the theories of the philosophers of nature had become complex before alchemy appeared.

Regional variations

Chinese alchemy

Neither in China nor in the West can scholars approach with certitude the origins of alchemy, but the evidences in Chinaappear to be slightly older. Indeed, Chinese alchemy was connected with an enterprise older than metallurgy—i.e., medicine. Belief in physical immortality among the Chinese seems to go back to the 8th century BC, and belief in the possibility of attaining it through drugs to the 4th century BC. The magical drug, namely the “elixir of life” (elixir is the European word), is mentioned about that time, and that most potent elixir, “drinkable gold,” which was a solution (usually imaginary) of this corrosion-resistant metal, as early as the 1st century BC—many centuries before it is heard of in the West.

Although non-Chinese influences (especially Indian) are possible, the genesis of alchemy in China may have been a purely domestic affair. It emerged during a period of politicalturmoil, the Warring States Period (from the 5th to the 3rd century BC), and it came to be associated with Taoism—a mystical religion founded by the 6th-century-BC sage Lao-tzu—and its sacred book, the Tao-te Ching (“Classic of the Way of Power”). The Taoists were a miscellaneous collection of “outsiders”—in relation to the prevailing Confucians—and such mystical doctrines as alchemy were soon grafted onto the Taoist canon. What is known of Chinese alchemy is mainly owing to that graft, and especially to a collection known as YŘn chi ch'i ch'ien (“Seven Tablets in a Cloudy Satchel”), which is dated 1023. Thus, sources on alchemy in China (as elsewhere) are compilations of much earlier writings.

The oldest known Chinese alchemical treatise is the Chou-i ts'an t'ung ch'i (“Commentary on the I Ching ”). In the main it is an apocryphal interpretation of the I Ching (“Classic of Changes”), an ancient classic especially esteemed by the Confucians, relating alchemy to the mystical mathematics of the 64 hexagrams (six-line figures used for divination). Itsrelationship to chemical practice is tenuous, but it mentions materials (including sal ammoniac) and implies chemical operations. The first Chinese alchemist who is reasonably well known was Ko Hung (AD 283–343), whose book Pao-p'u-tzu (pseudonym of Ko Hung) contains two chapters with obscure recipes for elixirs, mostly based on mercury or arsenic compounds. The most famous Chinese alchemical book is the Tan chin yao chŘeh (“Great Secrets of Alchemy”), probably by Sun Ssu-miao (AD 581–after 673). It is a practical treatise on creating elixirs (mercury, sulfur, andthe salts of mercury and arsenic are prominent) for the attainment of immortality, plus a few for specific cures for disease and such other purposes as the fabrication of precious stones.

Altogether, the similarities between the materials used and the elixirs made in China, India, and the West are more remarkable than are their differences. Nonetheless, Chinese alchemy differed from that of the West in its objective. Whereas in the West the objective seems to have evolved from gold to elixirs of immortality to simply superior medicines, neither the first nor the last of these objectives seems ever to have been very important in China.

Chinese alchemy was consistent from first to last, and therewas relatively little controversy among its practitioners, whoseem to have varied only in their prescriptions for the elixir of immortality or perhaps only over their names for it, of which one Sinologist has counted about 1,000. In the West there were conflicts between advocates of herbal and “chemical” (i.e., mineral) pharmacy, but in China mineral remedies were always accepted. There were, in Europe, conflicts between alchemists who favoured gold making and those who thought medicine the proper goal, but the Chinesealways favoured the latter. Since alchemy rarely achieved any of these goals, it was an advantage to the Western alchemist to have the situation obscured, and the art survived in Europe long after Chinese alchemy had simply faded away.

Chinese alchemy followed its own path. Whereas the Western world, with its numerous religious promises of immortality, never seriously expected alchemy to fulfill that goal, the deficiencies of Chinese religions in respect to promises of immortality left that goal open to the alchemist. A serious reliance on medical elixirs that were in varying degrees poisonous led the alchemist into permanent exertions to moderate those poisons, either through variation of the ingredients or through chemical manipulations. The fact that immortality was so desirable and the alchemist correspondingly valued enabled the British historian of science Joseph Needham to tabulate a series of Chinese emperors who probably died of elixir poisoning. Ultimately a succession of royal deaths made alchemists and emperors alike more cautious, and Chinese alchemy vanished (probably as the Chinese adopted Buddhism, which offered other, less dangerous avenues to immortality), leaving its literary manifestations embedded in the Taoist canons.

Indian alchemy

The oldest Indian writings, the Vedas (Hindu sacred scriptures), contain the same hints of alchemy that are found in evidence from ancient China, namely vague references to a connection between gold and long life. Mercury, which was so vital to alchemy everywhere, is first mentioned in the 4th- to 3rd-century-BC Artha-śāstra , about the same time it is encountered in China and in the West. Evidence of the idea of transmuting base metals to gold appears in 2nd- to 5th-century-AD Buddhist texts, about the same time as in the West. Since Alexander the Great had invaded India in 325 BC, leaving a Greek state (Gandhāra) that long endured, the possibility exists that the Indians acquired the idea from the Greeks, but it could have been the other way around.

It is also possible that the alchemy of medicine and immortality came to India from China, or vice versa; in any case, gold making appears to have been a minor concern, and medicine the major concern, of both cultures. But the elixir of immortality was of little importance in India (which had other avenues to immortality). The Indian elixirs were mineral remedies for specific diseases or, at the most, to promote long life.

As in China and the West, alchemy in India came to be associated with religious mysticism, but much later—not until the rise of Tantrism (an esoteric, occultic, meditative system), AD 1100–1300. To Tantrism are owed writings that are clearly alchemical (such as the 12th-century Rasārṇava, or “Treatise on Metallic Preparations”).

From the earliest records of Indian natural philosophy, which date from the 5th–3rd centuries BC, theories of nature were based on conceptions of material elements (fire, wind, water,earth, and space), vitalism (“animated atoms”), and dualisms of love and hate or action and reaction. The alchemist coloured metals and on occasion “made” gold, buthe gave little importance to that. His six metals (gold, silver, tin, iron, lead, and copper), each further subdivided (five kinds of gold, etc.), were “killed” (i.e., corroded) but not “resurrected,” as was the custom of Western alchemy. Rather, they were killed to make medicines. Although “the secrets of mercurial lore” became part of the Tantric rite, mercury seems to have been much less important than in China. The Indians exploited metal reactions more widely, but, although they possessed from an early date not only vitriol and sal ammoniac but also saltpetre, they nevertheless failed to discover the mineral acids. This is the more remarkable because India was long the principal source of saltpetre, which occurs as an efflorescence on the soil, especially in populous tropical countries. But it lacks thehigh degree of corrosivity of metals possessed by the vitriols and chlorides and played a small part in early alchemy. Saltpetre appears particularly in 9th- to 11th-century-AD Indian and Chinese recipes for fireworks, one of which—a mixture of saltpetre, sulfur, and charcoal—is gunpowder. Saltpetre first appears in Europe in the 13th century, along with the modern formula for gunpowder and the recipe for nitric acid.

Arabic alchemy

Arabic alchemy is as mysterious as Greek in its origins, and the two seem to have been significantly different. The respect in which Physica et mystica was held by the Greek alchemists was bestowed by the Arabs on a different work, the Emerald Tablet of Hermes Trismegistos, the reputed Hellenistic author of various alchemical, occultic, and theological works. Beginning “That which is above is like to that which is below, and that which is below is like to that which is above,” it is brief, theoretical, and astrological. Hermes “the thrice great” (Trismegistos) was a Greek version of the Egyptian god Thoth and the supposed founder of an astrological philosophy that is first noted in 150 BC. TheEmerald Tablet, however, comes from a larger work called Book of the Secret of Creation, which exists in Latin and Arabic manuscripts and was thought by the Muslim alchemist ar-Rāzī to have been written during the reign of Caliph al-Maʾmūn (AD 813–833), though it has been attributedto the 1st-century-AD pagan mystic Apollonius of Tyana.

Some scholars have suggested that Arabic alchemy descended from a western Asiatic school and that Greek alchemy was derived from an Egyptian school. As far as is known, the Asiatic school was not Chinese or Indian. What is known is that Arabic alchemy was associated with a specific city in Syria, Harran, which seems to have been a fountainhead of alchemical notions. And it is possible that the distillation ideology and its spokeswoman, Maria—as well as Agathodaimon—represented the alchemy of Harran,which presumably migrated to Alexandria and was incorporated into the alchemy of Zosimos.

The existing versions of the Book of the Secret of Creation have been carried back only to the 7th or 6th century but are believed by some to represent much earlier writings, although not necessarily those of Apollonius himself. He is the subject of an ancient biography that says nothing about alchemy, but neither does the Emerald Tablet nor the rest of the Book of the Secret of Creation. On the other hand, theirtheories of nature have an alchemical ring, and the Book mentions the characteristic materials of alchemy, including, for the first time in the West, sal ammoniac. It was clearly an important book to the Arabs, most of whose eminent philosophers mentioned alchemy, although sometimes disapprovingly. Those who practiced it were even more interested in literal gold making than had been the Greeks. The most well-attested and probably the greatest Arabic alchemist was ar-Rāzī (c. 850–923/924), a Persian physician who lived in Baghdad. The most famous was Jābir ibn Ḥayyān, now believed to be a name applied to acollection of “underground writings” produced in Baghdad after the theological reaction against science. In any case, the Jābirian writings are very similar to those of ar-Rāzī.

Ar-Rāzī classified the materials used by the alchemist into “bodies” (the metals), stones, vitriols, boraxes, salts, and “spirits,” putting into the latter those vital (and sublimable) materials, mercury, sulfur, orpiment and realgar (the arsenic sulfides), and sal ammoniac. Much is made of sal ammoniac, the reactive powers of which seem to have given Western alchemy a new lease on life. Ar-Rāzī and the Jābirian writerswere really trying to make gold, through the catalytic action of the elixir. Both wrote much on the compounding of “strongwaters,” an enterprise that was ultimately to lead to the discovery of the mineral acids, but students have been no more able to find evidence of this discovery in the writings ofthe Arabic alchemists than in those of China and India. The Arabic strong waters were merely corrosive salt solutions.

Ar-Rāzī's writing represents the apogee of Arabic alchemy, so much so that students of alchemy have little evidence ofits later reorientation toward mystical or quasi-religious objectives. Nor does it seem to have turned to medicine, which remained independent. But there was a tendency in Arabic medicine to give greater emphasis to mineral remedies and less to the herbs that had been the chief medicines of the earlier Greek and Arabic physicians. The result was a pharmacopoeia not of elixirs but of specific remedies that are inorganic in origin and not very different from the elixirs of ar-Rāzī. This new pharmacopoeia was taken to Europe by Constantine of Africa, a Baghdad-educated Muslim who died in 1087 as a Christian monk at Monte Cassino (Italy). The pharmacopoeia also appeared in Spain in the 11th century and passed from there to Latin Europe, along with the Arabic alchemical writings, which were translated into Latin in the 12th century.

Latin alchemy

In the 12th century the Christian West began to shed its habitof indifference or hostility to the secular literature of ancientand alien civilizations. Christian scholars were particularly attracted to Muslim Spain and Sicily and there made translations from both Arabic and Greek works, many of which were in some degree familiar, but some of which, including the literature of alchemy, were new.

The Greek alchemy of the Venice–Paris manuscript had much less impact than the work of ar-Rāzī and other Arabs, which emerged among the voluminous translations made in Spain about 1150 by Gerard of Cremona. By 1250 alchemy was familiar enough to enable such encyclopaedists as Vincent of Beauvais to discuss it fairly intelligibly, and before 1300 the subject was under discussion by the English philosopher and scientist Roger Bacon and the German philosopher, scientist, and theologian Albertus Magnus. To learn about alchemy was to learn about chemistry, for Europe had no independent word to describe the science of matter. It had been touched upon in works concerned with other forms of change—e.g., the motion of projectiles, the aging of man, and similar Aristotelian concepts. On the practical side there were also artists' recipe books; but for the first time in the works of Bacon and Albertus Magnus change was discussed in a truly chemical sense, with Bacon treating the newly translated alchemy as a general science of matter for which he had great hopes.

But the more familiar alchemy became, the more clearly it was understood that gold making was the almost exclusive objective of alchemy, and Europeans proved no more resistant to the lure of this objective than their Arabic predecessors. By 1350, alchemical tracts were pouring out ofthe scriptoria (monastic copying rooms), and the Europeans had even taken over the tradition of anonymity and false attribution. One authority wrote at length about supposed disagreements between two Arabs, Iahiae Abindinon and Geber Abinhaen, who were probably two versions of the name of Jābir ibn Ḥayyān. The most famous Jābirian work in Europe, The Sum of Perfection , is now thought to have been an original European composition. At about this time personal reminiscences of alchemists began to appear. Mostfamous was the Paris notary Nicolas Flamel (1330–1418), who claimed that he dreamed of an occult book, subsequently found it, and succeeded in deciphering it with the aid of a Jewish scholar learned in the mystic Hebrew writings known as the Kabbala. In 1382 Flamel claimed to have succeeded in the “Great Work” (gold making); certainlyhe became rich and made donations to churches.

By 1300 alchemists had begun the discovery of the mineral acids, a discovery that occupied about three centuries between the first evidence of the new strong water (aqua fortis—i.e., nitric acid) and the clear differentiation of the acids into three kinds: nitric, hydrochloric, and sulfuric. These three centuries saw prodigious efforts in European alchemy, for these spontaneously reactive and highly corrosive substances opened a whole new world of research. And yet, it was of little profit to chemistry, for the experiments were inhibited by the old objectives of separating the base metals into their “elements,” concocting elixirs, and other traditional procedures.

The “water of life” (aqua vitae; i.e., alcohol) was probably discovered a little earlier than nitric acid, and some physicians and a few alchemists turned to the elixir of life as an objective. John of Rupescissa, a Catalonian monk who wrote c. 1350, prescribed virtually the same elixirs for metal ennoblement and for the preservation of health. His successors multiplied elixirs, which lost their uniqueness and finally simply became new medicines, often for specific ailments. Medical chemistry may have been conceived under Islām, but it was born in Europe. It only awaited christening by its great publicist, Paracelsus (1493–1541), who was the sworn enemy of the malpractices of 16th-century medicine and a vigorous advocate of “folk” and“chemical” remedies. By the end of the 16th century, medicine was divided into warring camps of Paracelsians and anti-Paracelsians, and the alchemists began to move en masse into pharmacy.

Paracelsian pharmacy was to lead, by a devious path, to modern chemistry, but gold making still persisted, though methods sometimes differed. SalomonTrismosin, purported author of the Splendor solis, or “Splendour of the Sun” (published 1598), engaged in extensive visits to alchemical adepts (a common practice) and claimed success through “kabbalistic and magical books in the Egyptian language.” The impression given is that many had the secret of gold making but that most of them had acquired it from someone else and not from personal experimentation. Illustrations, often heavily symbolic, became particularly important, thoseof Splendor solis being far more complex than the text but clearly exercising a greater appeal, even to modern students.

Hellenistic alchemy

Western alchemy may go back to the beginnings of the Hellenistic period (c. 300 BC–c. AD 300), although the earliest alchemist whom authorities have regarded as authentic is Zosimos of Panopolis (Egypt), who lived near the end of the period. He is one of about 40 authors represented in a compendium of alchemical writings that was probably put together in Byzantium (Constantinople) in the 7th or 8th century AD and that exists in manuscripts in Venice and Paris.Synesius, the latest author represented, lived in Byzantium in the 4th century. The earliest is the author designated Democritus but identified by scholars with Bolos of Mende, a Hellenized Egyptian who lived in the Nile Delta about 200 BC.He is represented by a treatise called Physica et mystica (“Natural and Mystical Things”), a kind of recipe book for dyeing and colouring but principally for the making of gold and silver. The recipes are stated obscurely and are justified with references to the Greek theory of elements and to astrological theory. Most end with the phrase “One nature rejoices in another nature; one nature triumphs over anothernature; one nature masters another nature,” which authorities variously trace to the Magi (Zoroastrian priests), Stoic pantheism (a Greek philosophy concerned with nature),or to the 4th-century-BC Greek philosopher Aristotle. It was the first of a number of such aphorisms over which alchemists were to speculate for many centuries.

In 1828 a group of ancient papyrus manuscripts written in Greek was purchased in Thebes (Egypt), and about a half-century later it was noticed that among them, divided between libraries in Leyden (The Netherlands) and Stockholm, was a tract very like the Physica et mystica. It differed, however, in that it lacked the former's theoretical embellishments and stated in some recipes that only fraudulent imitation of gold and silver was intended. Scholars believe that this kind of work was the ancestor both of the Physica et mystica and of the ordinary artist's recipe book. The techniques were ancient. Archaeology has revealed metal objects inlaid with colours obtained by grinding metals with sulfur, and Homer's description (8th century BC) of the shield of Achilles gives the impression thatthe artist in his time was virtually able to paint in metal.

Democritus is praised by most of the other authors in the Venice–Paris manuscript, and he is much commented upon. But only Zosimos shows what had become of alchemy after Bolos of Mende. His theory is luxuriant in imagery, beginningwith a discussion of “the composition of waters, movement, growth, embodying and disembodying, drawing the spirits from bodies and binding the spirits within bodies” and continuing in the same vein. The “base” metals are to be “ennobled” (to gold) by killing and resurrecting them, but his practice is full of distillation and sublimation, and he is obsessed with “spirits.” Theory and practice are joined in theconcept that success depends upon the production of a series of colours, usually black, white, yellow, and purple, and that the colours are to be obtained through Theion hydōr(divine or sulfur water—it could mean either).

Zosimos credits these innovations mainly to Maria (sometimes called “the Jewess”), who invented the apparatus, and to Agathodaimon, probably a pseudonym. Neither is represented (beyond Zosimos' references) in the Venice–Paris manuscript, but a tract attributed to Agathodaimon, published in 1953, shows him to be preoccupied with the colour sequence and complicating it by using arsenic instead of sulfur. Thus, the colour-producing potentialities of chemistry were considerable by the time of Zosimos.

Zosimos also shows that alchemical theory came to focus onthe idea that there exists a substance that can bring about the desired transformation instantly, magically, or, as a modern chemist might say, catalytically. He called it “the tincture,” and had several. It was also sometimes called “the powder” (xērion), which was to pass through Arabic into Latin as elixir and finally (signifying its inorganic nature) as the “philosopher's stone,” “a stone which is not a stone,” as the alchemists were wont to say. It was sometimes called a medicine for the rectification of “base” or “sick” metals, and from this it was a short step to view it as a drug for the rectification of human maladies. Zosimos notes the possibility, in passing. When the objective of alchemy became human salvation, the material constitution of the elixir became less important than the incantations that accompanied its production. Synesius, the last author in the Venice–Paris manuscript, already defined alchemy as a mental operation, independent of the science of matter.

Thus, Greek alchemy came to resemble, in both theory and practice, that of China and India. But its objectives included gold making; thus it remained fundamentally different.

Modern alchemy

The possibility of chemical gold making was not conclusivelydisproved by scientific evidence until the 19th century. As rational a scientist as Sir Isaac Newton (1643–1727) had thought it worthwhile to experiment with it. The official attitude toward alchemy in the 16th to 18th century was ambivalent. On the one hand, The Art posed a threat to the control of precious metal and was often outlawed; on the other hand, there were obvious advantages to any sovereignwho could control gold making. In “the metropolis of alchemy,” Prague, the Holy Roman emperors Maximilian II (reigned 1564–76) and Rudolf II (reigned 1576–1612) proved ever-hopeful sponsors and entertained most of the leading alchemists of Europe.

This was not altogether to the alchemist's advantage. In 1595 Edward Kelley, an English alchemist and companion of the famous astrologer, alchemist, and mathematician John Dee, lost his life in an attempt to escape after imprisonment by Rudolf II, and in 1603 the elector of Saxony, Christian II, imprisoned and tortured the Scotsman Alexander Seton, whohad been traveling about Europe performing well-publicized transmutations. The situation was complicated by the fact that some alchemists were turning from gold making not to medicine but to a quasi-religious alchemy reminiscent of the Greek Synesius. Rudolf II made the German alchemist Michael Maier a count and his private secretary, although Maier's mystical and allegorical writings were, in the words of a modern authority, “distinguished for the extraordinary obscurity of his style” and made no claim to gold making. Neither did the German alchemist Heinrich Khunrath (c. 1560–1601), whose works have long been esteemed for their illustrations, make such a claim.

Conventional attempts at gold making were not dead, but by the 18th century alchemy had turned conclusively to religious aims. The rise of modern chemistry engendered notonly general skepticism as to the possibility of making gold but also widespread dissatisfaction with the objectives of modern science, which were viewed as too limited. Unlike the scientists of the Middle Ages and Renaissance, the successors of Newton and the great 18th-century French chemist Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier limited their objectives ina way that amounted to a renunciation of what many had considered the most important question of science, the relation of man to the cosmos. Those who persisted in askingthese questions came to feel an affinity with the alchemists and sought their answers in the texts of “esoteric,” or spiritual, alchemy (as distinct from the “exoteric” alchemyof the gold makers), with its roots in Synesius and other late Greek alchemists of the Venice–Paris manuscript.

This spiritual alchemy, or Hermetism, as its practitioners often prefer to call it, was popularly associated with the supposititious Rosicrucian brotherhood, whose so-called Manifestoes (author unknown; popularly ascribed to the German theologian Johann Valentin Andreń) had appeared inGermany in the early 17th century and had attracted the favourable attention not only of such reforming alchemists as Michael Maier but also of many prominent philosophers who were disquieted by the mechanistic character of the new science. In modern times alchemy has become a focal point for various kinds of mysticism. The old alchemical literature continues to be scrutinized for evidence, because alchemical doctrine is claimed to have on more than one occasion come into the possession of man but always again been lost. Nor is its association with chemistry considered accidental. In the words of the famous 19th-century English spiritual alchemist Mary Anne Atwood,

Alchemy is an universal art of vital chemistry which by fermenting the human spirit purifies and finally dissolves it. . . .
Alchemy is philosophy; it is the philosophy, the finding of the Sophia in the mind.

Assessments of alchemy


The most persistent goals of alchemy have been the prolongation of life and the transmutation of base metals into gold. It appears that neither was accomplished, unless one credits alchemy with the consequences of modern chemotherapy and the cyclotron.

It has been said that alchemy can be credited with the development of the science of chemistry, a keystone of modern science. During the alchemical period the repertoire of known substances was enlarged (e.g., by the addition of sal ammoniac and saltpetre), alcohol and the mineral acids were discovered, and the basis was laid from which modern chemistry was to rise. Historians of chemistry have been tempted to credit alchemy with laying this base while at thesame time regarding alchemy as mostly “wrong.” It is far from clear, however, that the basis of chemistry was in fact laid by alchemy rather than medicine. During the crucial period of Arabic and early Latin alchemy, it appears that innovation owed more to nascent medical chemistry than to alchemy.

But those who explore the history of the science of matter, where matter is considered on a wider basis than the modernchemist understands the term, may find alchemy more rewarding. Numerous Hermetic writers of previous centuries claimed that the aims of their art could yet be achieved—indeed, that the true knowledge had been repeatedly found and repeatedly lost. This is a matter of judgment, but it can certainly be said that the modern chemist has not attained the goal sought by the alchemist. For those who are wedded to scientific chemistry, alchemy can have no further interest. For those who seek the wider goal, which was also that of the natural philosopher before the advent of “mechanical,” “Newtonian,” or “modern” science, the search is still on.


Charlatanism was a prominent feature of European alchemy during the 16th century, and such monarchs as Rudolf II—even if they had mainly themselves to blame—were not entirely without reason in incarcerating some of their resident adepts. The picturesqueness of this era, which also saw the birth of the modern science of chemistry, has led many historians of chemistry to view alchemy in general as a fraud.

Other historians of chemistry have attempted to differentiate the good from the bad in alchemy, citing as good the discovery of new substances and processes and the invention of new apparatus. Some of this was certainly accomplished by alchemists (e.g., Maria), but most of it is more justifiably ascribed to early pharmacists.

Scholars generally agree that alchemy had something to dowith chemistry, but the modern Hermetic holds that chemistry was the handmaiden of alchemy, not the reverse.From this point of view the development of modern chemistry involved the abandonment of the true goal of the art.

Finally, a new interpretation was offered in the 1920s by the Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung, who, following the earlier work of the Austrian psychologist Herbert Silberer, judged alchemical literature to be explicable in psychological terms. Noticing the similarities between alchemical literature, particularly in its reliance on bizarre symbolic illustrations, and the dreams and fantasies of his patients, Jung viewed them as manifestations of a “collective unconscious” (inherited disposition). Jung's theory, still largely undeveloped, remains a challenge rather than an explanation.

Robert P. Multhauf

Robert Andrew Gilbert




In general, a spiritual quest for hidden truth or wisdom, the goal of which is union with the divine or sacred (the transcendent realm). Forms of mysticism are found in all major world religions, by analogy in the shamanic and other ecstatic practices of nonliterate cultures, and in secular experience.

In the 20th century mysticism (“the treasure hidden in the centres of our souls”) has undergone a renewal of interest and understanding and even amood of expectancy similar to that which marked its role in previous eras. Such a mood stems in part from the feeling of alienation that many persons experience in the modern world. Put down as a religion of the elite, mysticism (or the mystical faculty of perceiving transcendental reality) is said by many to belong to all men, though few use it. The British author Aldous Huxley has stated that “a totally unmystical world would be a world totally blind and insane,” and the Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore has noted that “Man has a feeling that he is truly represented in something which exceeds himself.”
Nature and significance

The goal of mysticism is union with the divine or sacred. The path to that union is usually developed by following four stages: purgation (of bodily desires), purification (of the will), illumination (of the mind), and unification (of one's will or being with the divine). If “the object of man's existence is to be a Man, that is, to re-establish the harmony which originally belonged between him and the divinized state before the separation took place which disturbed the equilibrium” (The Life and Doctrine of Paracelsus), mysticism will always be a part of the way of return to the source of being, a way of counteracting the experience of alienation. Mysticism has always held—and parapsychology also seems to suggest—that the discovery of a nonphysical element in man's personality is of utmost significance in his quest for equilibrium in a world of apparent chaos.

Mysticism's apparent denial, or self-negating, is part of a psychological process or strategy that does not really deny the person. In spite of its lunatic fringe, the maturer forms of mysticism satisfy the claims of rationality, ecstasy, and righteousness.

There is obviously something nonmental, alogical, paradoxical, and unpredictable about the mystical phenomenon, but it is not, therefore, irrational or antirationalor “religion without thought.” Rather, as Zen (Buddhist intuitive sect) masters say, it is knowledge of the most adequate kind, only it cannot be expressed in words. If there is a mystery about mystical experience, it is something it shares with life and consciousness. Mysticism, a form of living in depth, indicates that man, a meeting ground of various levels of reality, is more than one-dimensional. Despite the interaction and correspondence between levels—“What is below is like what is above; what is above is like what is below” (Tabula Smaragdina, “Emerald Tablet,”a work on alchemy attributed to Hermes Trismegistus)—theyare not to be equated or confused. At once a praxis (technique) and a gnosis (esoteric knowledge), mysticism consists of a way or discipline.

The relationship of the religion of faith to mysticism (“personal religion raised to the highest power”) is ambiguous, a mixture of respect and misgivings. Though mysticism may be associated with religion, it need not be. The mystic often represents a type that the religious institution (e.g., church) does not and cannot produce and does not know what to do with if and when one appears. As William Ralph Inge, an English theologian, commented, “institutionalism and mysticism have been uneasy bedfellows.” Although mysticism has been the core of Hinduism and Buddhism, it has been little more than a minor strand—and, frequently, a disturbing element—in Judaism, Christianity, and Islām. As the 15th- to 16th-century Italian political philosopher Niccol˛ Machiavelli had noted of the 13th-century Christian monastic leaders St. Francis and St. Dominic, they had saved religion but destroyed the church.

The founders of religion may have been incipient or advanced mystics, but the inner compulsions of their experience have proved less amenable to dogmas, creeds, and institutional restrictions, which are bound to be outward and majority oriented. There are religions of authority and the religion of the spirit. Thus, there is a paradox: if the mystic minority is distrusted or maltreated, religious life loses its sap; on the other hand, these “peculiar people” do not easily fit into society, with the requirements of a prescriptive community composed of less sensitive seekers of safety and religious routine. Though no deeply religious person can be without a touch of mysticism, and no mystic can be, in the deepest sense, other than religious, the dialogue between mystics and conventional religionists has been far from happy. From both sides there is a constant need for restatement and revaluation, a greater tolerance, a union of free men's worship. Though it validates religion, mysticism also tends to escape the fetters of organized religion.

Relation of mystical experience to other kinds of experience

Mysticism shares a common world with magic, theurgy (power of persuading the supernatural), prayer, worship, religion, metaphysics (transcendent levels of reality), and even science. It may not be always easy to distinguish mysticism from these but its approach and emphasis are different. Though there is an element of magic, psychism, and the occult in much of what passes for mysticism, it is not to be equated with a science of the unseen or with voicesand visions. Powers of the occult (or siddhis) are viewed as real, but they can also be dangerous and are not of interest to genuine mystics, who have warned against their likely misuse.

Prayer and worship may form part of mysticism, but they are viewed as means and not as essence; also, they are usually continuations of sensory experience, whereas mysticism is a pure unitary consciousness, or a union with God. As for science, it is analytic and discursive and expresses its findings in precise and abstract formulas; mysticism, however, like poetry, depends more on paradoxes and an unusual use of language. Philosophies may lead to or follow from mysticism, but they are not the same. Nature mysticism is another prominent variant, to which poets and artists are particularly prone. This has often been described or dismissed as pantheism (the divine in all) though it is perhaps other than a simple assertion of identity.

Emotionalism and purified emotion are quite different. Emotionalism, a kind of unsuccessful ecstasy, may arise from unpurged elements in the being; it could also be a concession or inability to hold the flow or touch from above. The natural state of man and, even more, that of the true mystic is serene and not agitated, not at the mercy of what the medieval mystical book The Cloud of Unknowing calls “monkey tricks of the soul.” “Be still, and still, and know.” Mysticism, among the many forms of experience, confirms the claims of religion and is viewed as providing a foretaste of the life after death.

Definitions of mysticism and mystical experience

Differences between mysticism and similar phenomena

To define is to limit, and no single definition will cover every aspect of mysticism. Some have objected to the word itself and believed that “enlightenment” or “illumination” might be better. Though they meet, mysticism has to be distinguished from prophetic religions as well as from shamanism (a belief system built around psychic transformations). Working through chosen individuals—not necessarily saints and chosen for no other reason than God'swill—prophetic religions emphasize action to a far greater extent than most forms of mysticism, with its penchant for inwardness and the beyond. Though in ecstasy the barriers seem to disappear, in prophetism God and man are rarely identified. Shamanism, a technique of ecstasy generally found in Siberia and Central Asia but with parallels in primitive society, provides a sort of correspondence with thepurgative stage of mysticism (in which physical needs are negated). The closeness to paranormal (or supernatural) phenomena seems more pronounced, however, in shamanism. Both the shaman and the mystic, as communicants with a world beyond normal experience, reveal an identity of goal, if not of practice and content.

Basic patterns

Paradigmatic pronouncements in regard to mysticism poseproblems of their own. The classic Indian formula—“that thou art,” tat tvam asi (Chāndogya Upaniṣad, 6.9)—is hedgedin with the profoundest ambiguity. The difficulty reappears in the thought of the medieval Christian mystic Meister Eckehart, who had the church raising questions for such unguarded statements as “The knower and the known are one. God and I, we are one in knowledge” and “There is no distinction between us.”

Mysticism may be defined as the belief in a third kind of knowledge, the other two being sense knowledge and knowledge by inference. Adolf Lasson has written:

The essence of Mysticism is the assertion of an intuition which transcends the temporal categories of the understanding. . . .
Rationalism cannot conduct us to the essence of things; we therefore need intellectualvision.

This same view was held by the 3rd-century-AD Greek philosopher Plotinus. But the pattern misses the other dominant quality of mystical experience—love, or union through love. The medieval, theistic view of mysticism (as of religious life) was that it was “a stretching out of the soul into God through the urge of love, an experimental knowledge of God through unifying love.” Its other name wasjoy, and the endeavour of the mystic to grasp the divine essence or ultimate reality helped him to enjoy the blessedness of actual communion with the highest. This was considered both a science and an art. As a science (i.e., intuitive knowledge, or the “science of ultimates”), mysticism is viewed as being able to help in “the overcoming of creatureliness,” and also as being able to maintain “the tendency to stress up to an extreme and exaggerated point the non-rational aspect of religion.”

Reality, a kingdom of values, is viewed not as a faceless infinite, an impersonal something or somewhat. If not an ego,it is a being, and most mystics would call it God. Mysticism arises when man tries to bring the urge toward a communion with God—a “Being conceived as the supreme and ultimate reality,” according to the British scholar William Ralph Inge—toward a higher consciousness and being in relation with the other contents of his mind and total personality, when he tries to realize the presence of the living God in the soul and in nature or, more generally, in the attempt to realize (in thought and feeling) the immanence of the temporal in the eternal. A 19th-century scholar, Otto Pfleiderer, indicated that religious mysticism is “the immediate feeling of unity of the self with God; it is nothing, therefore, but the fundamental feeling of religion, the religious life at its very heart and centre.” Against such exclusive concentration the British writer Richard Nettleship suggests a corrective element, that of wholeness and symbolism. “Mysticism is the consciousness that everything that we experience is an element, and only an element, in fact, i.e. that in being what it is, it is symbolic of something else.”

Introvertive mysticism

Certain forms of mysticism, however, would seem to strive toward a naked encounter with the Whole or All, without and beyond symbols. Of this kind of direct apprehension of the absolute, introvertive mysticism offers examples from different times and traditions. Instead of looking out, the gaze turns inward, toward the unchanging, the undifferentiated “One without a second.” The process by which this state is attained is by a blotting out or suppression of all physical sensations—indeed, of the entire empirical content of consciousness. Cittavṛttinirodha (“the holding or stopping of the mind stuff”) was how the 2nd-century-BC Indian mystic Pata˝jali described it. The model of introvertive mysticism comes from the MāṇḍūkyaUpaniṣad:

The Fourth, [aspect of self] say the wise, . . . is not the knowledge of the senses, nor is it relative knowledge, nor yet inferential knowledge. Beyond the senses, beyond the understanding, beyond all expression is The Fourth. It is pure unitary consciousness wherein [all] awareness of the world and of multiplicity is completely obliterated. It is ineffable peace. It is the supreme good. It is One without a second. It is the Self. (From The Upanishads, Breath of the Eternal; trans. by Swami Prabhavananda and Frederick Manchester.)

Other definitions and experiences of mysticism

Such undifferentiated unity or union between the individual and the supreme self is unacceptable to certain traditions and temperaments. The Jewish philosopher Martin Buber emphasized an “I–Thou” relationship: “All real living is meeting,” and one Thou cannot become It. But even his own “unforgettable experience” of union he would explain as “illusory.” With a wider range, a British scholar, R.C. Zaehner,has tried to establish different kinds, or types, of mysticism: of isolation, the separation of spirit and matter, eternity from time; pantheistic, or “pan-enhenic,” in which the soul is the universe—all creaturely existence is one; the theistic, in which the soul feels identified with God; and the beatific, with its hope of deification when “the perishable puts on the imperishable.”

Definitions of mysticism include a bewildering variety, ranging from the biological through the psychological to the theological. The origin of the word and certain of its features strongly suggest the possibility that mysticism is the science of a hidden life. But there is also a growing belief among 20th-century scholars that “the people of the hidden”should not remain hidden too long and should come out in the open, befitting an era of “open development” and “open realization.” Some 20th-century scientists, among them physicists, biologists, and paleontologists, have shown a marked mystical bias. A biologist, Ludwig von Bertalanffy, has confessed to “peak experiences” of a great unity and liberation from ego boundary: “In moments of scientific discovery I have an intuitive insight into a grand design.” He finds no necessary opposition between the rational way of thinking and intuitive experience culminating in what the mystics have tried to express. Both have their place and may coexist. Earlier there had been a sharp dichotomy between scientific and mystical knowledge. The logic of levels may never be amenable to analysis or intellectual understanding, but that is not to deny the role of reason.

Attitudes toward mysticism since the middle of the 20th century have been considerably modified by an awareness of subliminal consciousness, extrasensory perceptions, and, above all, an evolutionary perspective. The Roman Catholic paleontologist Teilhard de Chardin asked if in an expanding universe mysticism would not burst the limits of narrow cults and religious rigidity and move toward an ecumenical future. In a larger view, mysticism has not so much to be defined as renewed and redefined.

Universal types of mystical experience

Intellectual and contemplative forms

Mystical experience, which is centred in a seeking for unity, admits of wide variations but falls into recognizable types: mild and extreme, extrovertive and introvertive, and theistic and nontheistic. Another well-known typology—corresponding to the faculties of thinking, willing, and feeling—employs the Indian formula, the respective ways of knowledge (j˝āna ), works (karma ), and devotion (bhakti ). Claims have been made on behalf of each, though maturer mystics have tried to accord to each its place and also to arrive at a synthesis, as in the Bhagavadgītā (Hindu sacred scripture). Depending on the powers of discrimination, the intellectual or the contemplative type tries to reach the Highest, the One, or the Godhead behind God. In its approach toward the supreme identity it tends to be chary of multiplicity, “to deny the world that it may find reality.” Plotinus was “ashamed of being in the body.” In the 17th century, Spinoza's nondenominational concept of intellectual love of God revealed a sense of aloofness or isolation reminiscent of the ancient Hindus.

Man, however, does not live by thought alone; to live is to work, and faith without works is dead. The mystic injunction is that works should be done in a spirit of nonattachment, with the ego sense (I, the doer) taken away. In a larger sense, not merely the doing of religious chores but all activity is offered to the Supreme. All life, according to many mystics, turns into a sacrament. “All life is yoga (meditation practice).”

Devotional forms

For the emotional type of person there is the mysticism of love and devotion. A theistic attitude, or devotional mysticism, depends upon mutual attraction. In the words ofa Ṣūfī poet, “I sought Him for thirty years, I thought that it was I who desired Him, but no, it was He who desired me.” The path of devotion includes the rituals of prayer, worship, and adoration, which—if done with sincerity, inwardness, andunderstanding—can bring some of the most rewarding treasures of the religious life, including ecstasy (or samādhi). There is a paradox and a danger here: the paradoxof avoiding the loss of personality, the danger of self-indulgence.

Ecstatic and erotic forms

Also, in an unpurified medium, the experiences may and do give rise to erotic feelings, a fact observed and duly warned against by the wiser spirits and the Fathers of the Church. (Zen Buddhism avoids both the overly personal and erotic suggestions.) Sometimes the distinction between eros (Greek: “erotic love”) or kāma (Sanskrit: “sexual love”) and agapē (Greek: “a higher love”) or prema (Sanskrit: “higher love”) can be thin. In the Indian tradition the Vaiṣnava (devotional) and Tantric (sexual) experiments were, in their apparently different ways, bold and honest attempts at sublimation, though the majority of these experiments turned out to be failures and disasters.

The same fate is likely to overtake the craze for psychedelic drugs and pharmacological aids to visionary experience—practices that are by no means new. A yogic writer, Pata˝jali, speaks of the use of auṣadhi (a medicinal herb) as a means to yogic experience, and the Vedas (Hindu scriptures) and Tantras (Hindu occultic writings) refer to wine as part of worship and the initiatory rites. The Greek Mysteries (religions of salvation) sometimes used sedativesand stimulants. Primarily meant to remove ethical, social, and mental inhibitions and to open up the subconscious no less than the subliminal, these techniques, as a rule, were frowned upon, even though those who took the help of such artificial aids had undergone prior training and discipline.

A whole new life-style and vocabulary have developed around medicinal mysticism in the 20th century. Peyote, mescaline, hashish, marijuana, Cannabis indica, LSD, and other similar products have become familiar to much of the world's population. The visions induced by such aids at best resemble the extrovertive type and cannot be easily equated with genuine mystical experience. According to taste, temperament, and tradition, the experience—a parodyof creative spontaneity—may come from unexpected sources. In any case, utilizing such medicinal aids rarely achieves union with Self or God, and no permanent change of personality (in the mystical sense) has been known to occur.

Goal of mystical experience and mysticism

Experience of the divine or sacred

The goal of mysticism is “ghostly,” a state or condition in which the soul is “one'd with God,” according to the Western medieval work The Cloud of Unknowing. This “one-ing” is because all men, according to mystics, are called to their origin. Self-realization is basically one in intent with the injunctions of the Greek Mysteries: “Know thyself.” This knowing, union, or communion with the divine and the sacredis of the essence of the ascent of man. As the only answer to the problem of identity, mystics look upon it as the final end, the summum bonum. At the journey's end waits the knowledge by identity. The direct, intuitive perception is more akin to revealed religion than to science and philosophy, though it is of itself a science, and philosophies spring from as well as lead to it.
Goal of mystical experience and mysticism

Union with the divine or sacred

In the movement toward the goal there are, naturally, stages and processes, marked differently in different traditions. Thediscipline of prayer, purification, and contemplation culminates in the highest wordless union with the divine and the ultimate. As the process unfolds itself along the mystic way, an alteration of personality—a conversion, if not reintegration—occurs. The unregenerate “old man” (in Christianity) is replaced by the new being. The “twice born” (in Hinduism) becomes more than a metaphor or sacrosanct social arrangement. There is a change of level and mind. Oneof the aims or methods of mysticism is to make possible this change and conversion, a shift from the profane to the sacred, from “here” to “there”: “Lead me from the unreal to the real, from darkness to light, from death to immortality” (Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad). Before the transition, or the “great passage,” is completed, however, the individual or pilgrim feels successively or simultaneously his oneness with nature, with people, and with things—an extension of awareness or expanded selfhood to which no limits can be assigned. Cosmic consciousness is thus a stage in a progressive self-discovery.

Experience of the universal

The nature of the goal, however, introduces a paradox. Like every other aim and activity, mysticism operates in a historical context. Yet, sooner or later, it also tends to reveal a timeless stance. The mystic is both in and out of time. The eternal now is a kind of release from the temporal order. Such a release may lead to a shift from the local to the universal, to a growing sense of unity of all experience. Though not a declared or conscious aim, this result could be looked upon as a not unworthy goal as well as a pragmatic standard.

To cure man of a provincialism of the spirit, from which more people suffer than either know or admit it, is one of the goals of a mysticism that has come of age. The true mystic is a cosmopolitan. In man's many-sided growth toward the real, asane and mature mysticism leads to an ecumenical insight and obligation. Local colour, particulars, and uniqueness will not cease, but, in the perspective of the future and of wholeness, the universal alone will have survival value.

Experience of oneness with people

The apotheosized (divinized) field of consciousness is mysticism's ultimate goal and gift to the life of an evolving humanity. It alone is fitted to mediate between the anguish of existence and the serenity of essence, between saṃsāra (“cycle of birth and rebirth”) and Nirvāṇa (the State of Bliss). According to an American Roman Catholic mystic, Thomas Merton, “The spiritual anguish of man has no cure but mysticism.”

Though the mystic goal may seem to be tied to a transcendent reality, this does not mean a sundering of all relations and responsibilities. On the contrary, it is the guarantee of a set of altered relationships and a rehabilitation of what may be called the higher reason. Intuitions that sink into private fancy and morbidity have a short life to live. As for the mystic's “yonder,” it is not spatially or posthumously remote but rather refers to a different order of reality and consciousness. The healthier forms of mysticism do not abjure action or the claims of love. It is an ancient maxim that one becomes what one loves. This is how the psychic birth repeats itself in the mystic soul, as stated, for example, by Meister Eckehart, a medieval German mystic: “It is more worthy of God that he should be born spiritually of every virgin, or of every good soul, than that he should have been born physically of Mary.”

The mystic is not always amorous of the beyond, leaving an unredeemed world to its own ways. Not escape but, rather, victory is mysticism's inner urge and promise. The more sober among the mystics do not merely withdraw; they also return to the base and attempt the ancient alchemy, the transformation of men. A solitary salvation does not satisfy either head or heart.

Mystical relationship between man and the sacred

Nature of the relationship

Within man is the soul of the holy, said Ralph Waldo Emersonin the 19th century. This is true of society, too. As the French sociologist ╔mile Durkheim saw it, the sacred is but a personified society. Mysticism, one might say, is the art and science of the holy. Theologically, it is but “the experience of the Holy Ghost, . . . the realization of the Spirit of Holiness.” As the opposite of the profane and as a distinct and irreducible quality of the religious and mystical life, the sacred has always existed. It is indeed a mark of the real, and, when the German theologian Rudolf Otto isolated the sacred as a “quite distinctive category” of mystical apprehension, he had no lack of evidence. The emphasis, however, was not unanimously accepted. Some, like Inge, thought the sacred might as well be elicited from such ultimate values as “truth, goodness, and beauty.”

According to the respective world view, the interpretation or emphasis varies, but the universal core remains unaffected. The sacred is in its own way a coherent system, though not rational. The dualists no less than the theists insist on the unqualified and irreducible “otherness,” the unbridgeable gulf, even when one speaks of union or communion. It is the distance that preserves the sacred.

Christian mystics, who often speak of “union with God,” generally do not imply identity with the divine, since this might lead to heresy. The 16th-century Spanish mystic St. Teresa of Avila could write with impunity: “It is plain enough what unity is—two distinct things becoming one.” But most others could not be so plain and had to use special strategy to cover up traces of possible deviation from what was permissible. Even if there had been a semblance of interpenetration between man and the divine, there could beno substantial identity. “Each of these,” wrote the medieval Dutch mystic Jan van Ruysbroeck, “keeps its own nature. There is here a great distinction, for the creature never becomes God, nor does God ever become the creature.” The same doctrine is preached in the Middle Ages by the mystic Heinrich Suso:

In this merging of itself in God the spirit passes away and yet not wholly;
for it receives indeed some attribute of God, but it does not become God by nature.
It is still something that has been created out of nothing, and continues to be this everlastingly.

Identification of man with the divine, according to many the heart of mysticism, raises problems from other points of view as well. Pantheism, which asserts that all is God (or Nature), and God (or Nature) is all, is looked upon as a false doctrine in many religions. To John Calvin's leading question—“The Devil also must be God, substantially?”—theunsuspecting Spanish theologian and physician Michael Servetus had answered smilingly: “Do you doubt it?” The opinion cost him his life. The Hindus' Upaniṣads, however, insist on this identity in passage after passage. Closely looked at, this may not be simple pantheism but an identity in difference, a paradox present in even Vedānta (a Hindu monistic system). Islām has been fiercely critical of these claims of oneness and the medieval mystic al-Ḥallāj had to pay with his life (922) for making the unorthodox announcement of his identity with the divine: “Anā al-ḥaqq” (“I am the Truth”). He was not the only one to speak in this manner. The more moderate Maḥmūd Shabestarī had reported an experience (c. 1320):

In God there is no duality. In that presence “I” and “we”and “you” do not exist.
 “I” and “you” and “we” and “He” become one.
Since in the unity there is no distinction, the Quest and the Way and the Seeker become one.

But Muslim theologians as a rule tended to dismiss those who “boasted of union with the Deity” as merely “babblers.” In the Jewish tradition, it is generally considered improper and indecorous for any man to give a personal account of his own mystical experience.
Mystical relationship between man and the sacred

Awe and mystery

Behind these and other interpretations, the reality of the sacred—and its persistent ambiguity—appears to be too trueto be denied or ignored. Awe may or may not be the best part of man, but without it a necessary dimension is left out of theimage of man, the dimension of what Otto called the mysterium tremendum et fascinans (“the mystery that repels and attracts”). The mystics are loath to leave this dimension out and, directly or indirectly, insist on its inclusion. The reason was suggested in the 5th–4th centuriesBC by the Greek philosopher Plato, who maintained that the divine was the head and root of man. The mystic's is the eye, the third eye, with which the world beholds itself and knows itself divine. Though the vision is partial and passes away, there could be an ideal state of unbroken awareness of the Real Presence, an epiphany (manifestation).

According to the mystical point of view, the rational content of religion is not enough; it is not of the essence of religion. The sense of the holy, the mark of man's encounter with the “other,” is usually invested with an ethical aura or undertone. This is how most people understand it. But this lowers its potency considerably. There is clearly an overplus,below good and evil and beyond good and evil. The numinous(spiritual) is not altogether free of the ominous. Thus, thoughthe holy may be discussed, it cannot be well defined. It can, however, be experienced and evoked, as part of that wordless mystery that man must face—even if he is not able to explain satisfactorily—in his journey toward the real. This may happen early or late in his mystical journey, and the notion of evolution may not be applied to it uniformly.

The holy is not always and altogether a pleasant experience.Often shrouded in a fear that is more than fear, it is an inward dread and shuddering. The holy as awe-inspiring can be found in the Indian pantheon in such figures as Rudra andKālī, the dark and wrathful faces of the divine, in which—in a collapse of finitude—majesty and unapproachability are inexplicably blended. The feeling of being consumed in the presence of the divine is a profound expression of man's relation to the holy. As for the ultimate mystical identity withthe Supreme, Self, God, or the Unknowable, that also confirms the nonrational and suprarational nature of the experience in which ego, logic, and grammar are shattered alike. A frightful and traumatic adventure, not unlike the Greek Mystery rites, it can erupt at every crisis, break through an insulated universe. A clergyman cited by William Starbuck, an American psychologist of religion, spoke of having experienced

a [silent] presence [in the night], all the more felt because it was not seen.
I could not any more have doubted that He was there than that I was.
Indeed, I felt myself to be, if possible, the less real of the two.

Diminution apart, the holy generally gives rise to a sense of energy and urgency, which may take different forms. At a higher level, the consuming fire of love reported by mystics could be an extension or refinement of the same energy, for “Love is nothing else than quenched Wrath.” The “nothing else” may be an exaggeration, but such paradoxes of the religious life—e.g., the unity of opposites—meet man at every turn. The void in Buddhism, like the nothing in Western mysticism, may be a numinous ideogram of the “wholly other.”

Means and modes of the relationship

As means to meet the divine, some mystics have taken recourse to fasting, breath control, meditation, ecstasy, simplification, autosuggestion, and monoideism (absorption in a single idea). Rituals, in some cases, provide contact. An old method is the via negativa (“negative way”): “the emptier your mind, the more susceptible are you to the working of the presence.” In other words, the impediments have to be removed. Among other indirect—but no less effective—means would be the shock therapy of the blood-curdling images that one notes in Tibetan iconographyand symbology, which have their links with the archaic and the chthonian (infernal). On more negotiable levels, works of art—as far apart as Sung (Chinese) paintings, Gothic cathedrals, medieval temple architecture in India, the Egyptian Sphinx, music such as the Missa Solemnis or Sanskrit (Hindu) hymns—are accredited conductors of the numinous. Darkness, solitude, silence, and emptiness are sometimes enough for the sensitive soul, and the doors of perception open to a wider world beyond. A wide stretch of land or cranes flying against a cloudy sky were enough to throw the 19th-century Indian saint Ramakrishna into transport. But, always, it is less the object than something seen through the object, a bodiless presence, that forms the essence. Without symbols in which the holy is embodied, the experience of the holy vanishes.

Though it creates a sense of awe and exaltation, the idea of the holy also produces a mood of dependence, leading to action aimed at appeasing the deity or the powers behind the universe. At first, the policy of appeasement may have been inspired by fear and hope of reward. But, since the deityis not ultimately malevolent, it could also evolve into an idea of grace. Mystical theology, both in the East and in the West, has sometimes been divided over the issue whether the union with the divine is the result of one's unaided effort or supernatural grace.

The approaches to the divine or sacred are various rather than uniform. Moving through physical, intellectual, devotional, and symbolic rituals and disciplines, it moves toward the ultimate goal: the annihilation of the self, unio mystica (“mystical union”) in Western Christianity, moka (“salvation”) in Hinduism, Nirvāa (the State of Bliss) in Buddhism, and fanā (“the snuffing out of self”) in Islām. Though the words differ, the experiences are perhaps allied, if not the same. In a ūfī (Islāmic mystical) poem the divine voice speaks exultantly:

Annihilate yourself gloriously and joyously in Me,
and in Me you shall find yourself;
so long as you do not realize your nothingness,
you will never reach the heights of immortality.

The description could as well be applied to the Buddhist śūnyatā (“void”) and the self-negating of the Christian mystics.

The ultimate has been, as a rule, thought of as something “other” and apart, even if in mysticism what is sought is union or unity. Hierophany (manifestation of the holy) implies a choice and a distinction: between that which manifests the sacred and that which does not. Also, though a hierophany may represent a historic event that does not minimize its larger validity (and in any culture there may be local as well as general hierophanies), a hierarchy is not unlikely. On occasions, the sacred may manifest itself in something profane. Ideally, to a mystic, “the integrated quality of the cosmos is itself a hierophany.” From this follows the possibility of consecrating the whole of life, so that by sacramental transformation, at any moment, “the flash of a trembling glance” may be inserted into the great time and project the man amphibian (having dual life) into eternity. Deification, without doubt one of the goals of the mystical life and a fundamental concept of orthodox Christendom, is part of the dialectics of the sacred. The alchemic undertone, in the man–God idea, has never wholly been extinguished. But, as part of the continuing paradox, one should also mention a resistance to the sacred. Depending on the ambivalence of the response to the sacred, which at once repels and attracts, the resistance is ultimately a flight from reality.

Semantics and symbolism in mystical experience

Union of opposites

Mystical experience is flanked with a communication hazard,a “polar identity.” The linguistic liberties and extravagances are part of the logical impossibility of having to describe oneorder of experience in terms of another. Hence, the rhetoric of mysticism is largely one of symbols and paradoxes. The most striking of the strategies, as the medieval Christian scholar Nicholas of Cusa put it, is coincidentia oppositorum (“union of opposites”). Since the opposites coincide without ceasing to be themselves, this also becomes an acceptable definition of God, or the nature of the Ground. God, said Heracleitus, is day and night, summer and winter, war and peace, and satiety and hunger—all opposites. A 5th- to 6th-century-AD Christian mystical writer called Dionysius theAreopagite advised people to

strip off all questions in order that we may attain a naked knowledge of that
Unknowing and that we may begin to see the superessential
Darkness which is hidden by the light that is in existent things.
This use of language or view of things is obviously not normal.

Old myths and archetypes are full of examples of such dichotomy. The Zoroastrian tradition has Ormazd (the Good Lord) and Ahriman (the Lie); the Gnostic myth speaks of Christ and Satan as brothers; and the same idea is found in the Vedas, where the suras (“good spirits”) and asuras (“badspirits”) are shown to be cousins. In a different context there is the androgyne (“man–woman”), the ardhanārīśvara in Indian myth. As for the Hindu jīvanmukta, the liberated individual, he is liberated from duality. This is also part of what the Lord Kṛṣṇa (Krishna) said, when he asked the hero Arjuna to rise above the three guṇas (“modes”). The Tantras refer to the union of Śiva (a Hindu god) and Śakti (Śiva's consort) in one's own body and consciousness and provide appropriate practices to this end. The Chinese had their Yangand Yin (opposites), the Tibetans their Yab and Yum (opposites), and Buddhism its saṃsāra and Nirvāṇa as aspects of the Same. In Praj˝āpāramitā, a Mahāyāna (northern Buddhist) text, the Illumined Ones are supposed toengage in a laughter in which all distinctions cease to exist.

Emptiness and fullness

Mystical experience permits complementary and apparently contradictory methods of expression: via affirmativa (“affirmative way,” or fullness) as well as via negativa (“negative way,” or emptiness). For fullness and freedom both are needed. This is because the reality affirmed contains its own opposite. In fact, the apparent negations—neti-neti, (“not this, not that”) of the Upaniṣads, the śūnyatā (“void”) of the Buddhists, or the Darkness beyond Light of Dionysius—perform a double function. They state a condition of being as well as its utter freedom from every determination. As Dionysius explains it, “While God possesses all the attributes of the universe, being the universal Cause, yet in a stricter sense He does not possess them, since He transcends them all.” The “negative way,” a way of turning the back upon the finite, is part of an old, positive, verified insight, at once the last freedom and, as faras many men are concerned, perhaps a lost freedom.
Symbolism of divine messengers

Experiences relating to these realities could not at any time have been common or widespread and must have come mainly through consecrated channels: yogis (Hindu meditation practitioners), gurus (Hindu teachers), prophets, mystics, saints, and spiritual masters of the inner life. This channelling through human agents has given rise to a host ofdivine messengers: a hierarchy of angels, intermediaries, and incarnations, singly or in succession. This manner of approaching or receiving the divine or holy is the justification of avatars (incarnations of God) and the man–God in various religions. “God was made man in order that man might be made God.”

The mystical experience is a renovation of life at its root; that is, of the forgotten language of symbols and symbolism.The mystic participates in two worlds at once, the profane and the sacred. Rituals and ceremonies become the means of integration with a higher reality and consciousness. But symbols cannot be deliberately manufactured, nor do they make an arbitrary system. “Being for ever communicating itsessence” is the source of their abundance, potency, and unity. Even a nontheistic mysticism, such as Buddhism, hasdeployed symbols freely, of which perhaps the most well-known is the formula oṃ maṇi padme hūṃ (“the jewel inthe lotus”).

Symbols point beyond themselves, participate in that to which they point, open up levels of reality that are otherwise closed to man, unlock dimensions and elements of the soul that correspond to reality and cannot be produced intentionally or invented. Symbols may be inner or outer. To some, nature symbolism comes easily.

Symbolism of love and marriage

A far more risky but inescapable mode of symbolism than pantheism has been the use of the analogy of human love and marriage. Not all the mystics have been deniers or champions of repression. The soul, it may be added, is always feminine. The Christian mystics St. Bernard and St. John of the Cross, the Islāmic Ṣūfī poets, and the Hindu Dravidian and Vaiṣṇava saints could teach lovers. Not only the church but the faithful are viewed to be among Christ's brides and speak the language of love. “O that you would kiss me with the kisses of your mouth!” The speaker is the bride, thirsting for God. St. Bernard has shown that through carnal, mercenary, filial, and nuptial love the life of man moves toward the mystery of grace and union.

The hermeneutics (critical interpretation) of “the Bridegroom-Word” is that “the soul's return is her conversion to the Word, to be reformed through Him and to be conformed to Him.” In the West, the roots of the tradition go back to the Song of Solomon in the Bible, not, perhaps, thebest of models. The Hindu līlās (“love plays”) of Rādhā and Kṛṣṇa have been freely misunderstood in spite of the repeated disclaimer that the events described are not facts but symbols. The charge of immorality has been loudest against the Tantras, which had made a subtle, bold, and strictexperiment in sublimation, whose inner sense may fail to be intelligible even to those who are attracted by it. That the marriage symbol should find a readier response among the brides of Christ is only to be expected. In The Interior Castle ,St. Teresa has been fairly outspoken: “He has bound Himselfto her as firmly as two human beings are joined in wedlock and will never separate Himself from her.” But this was not a monopoly of nuns. The medieval theologian Richard of Saint-Victor has described as well as explained the “steep stairway of love” made up of betrothal, marriage, wedlock, and fruitfulness. In a slightly different set of symbols, St. John of the Cross states that after the soul has driven away from itself all that is contrary to the divine will, it is “transformed in God by love.”
Symbolism of the journey

Another prominent mystical symbol is the way, quest, or pilgrimage. Having lost the paradise of his soul, man, as the 16th-century physician and alchemist Paracelsus says, is a wanderer ever. A Christian monk, St. Bonaventure, has written about the mind's journey to God, and an English mystic, Walter Hilton, has described the Christian journey thus:

Right as a true pilgrim going to Jerusalem, leaveth behind him his house and land, wife and child,
and maketh himself poor and bare from all that he hath, that he may go lightly without letting:
right so, if thou wilt be a ghostly pilgrim, thou shalt make thyself naked from all that thou w
ouldst be at Jerusalem, and at none other place but there.
(From The Ladder of Perfection .)

According to the Ṣūfīs, the pilgrim is the perceptive or intuitional sense of man. Aided by attraction, devotion, and elevation, the journey leads, by way of many a wine shop (divine love), to the tavern (illumination), “the journey to God in God.” In his Conference of the Birds , the 12th-centuryPersian Ṣūfī ʿAṭṭār refers to the seven valleys en route to the king's hidden palace: the valleys of quest, love, knowledge, detachment, unity, amazement, and, finally, annihilation. Others have gone further and spoken of “annihilation of annihilation.” In the symbolic universe, denudation may be viewed as a way of fullness.

Men are called to the journey inward or upward because of a homing instinct. Eckehart put the matter simply: earth cannot escape the sky. All men are called to their origin, which implies God's need of man. A mutual attraction, the tendency toward the Divine cannot be stifled indefinitely, since it returns after every banishment. For some, paradise is not enough; it is too localized and perhaps perishable. They strain toward eternity, a leap beyond history into the incommunicable forever. A white radiance to some, to othersit is “a ring of pure and bright light.” The Veda speaks of the kālahahaṃsa (“the swan of time”) winging back to the sky and nest, eternity.

Essentially a way of return, ricorso, the final aim of mysticism is transfiguration. But

by what alchemy shall this lead of mortality be turned into that gold of divine Being?
But if they are not in their essence contraries?
If they are manifestations of one Reality, identical in substance?
Then indeed a divine transmutation becomes conceivable.
(From Sri Aurobindo, The Life Divine .)

This is a clue to the Vedas, those hymns to the mystic fire and the inner sense of sacrifice, burning forever on “the altarMind.” Hence the abundance of solar and fire images: birds of fire, the fire of the sun, and the isles of fire. The symbol systems of the world religions and mysticisms are profound illuminations of the human-divine mystery. Be it the cave of the heart or the lotus of the heart, “the dwelling place of that which is the Essence of the universe,” the third eye, or the eye of wisdom—the symbols all refer back to the wisdom entering the aspiring soul on its way toward progressive self-understanding. “I saw my Lord with the Eye of the Heart. I said, ‘Who art Thou?' and he answered, ‘thou'.” Throughout the ages man, homo symbolicus, has been but exploring the endless miracle of being. Mystical experience is a living encyclopaedia of equations and correspondences, pointer readings that partly reveal and partly conceal.

Psychological aspects of mysticism


Mysticism has been accused of passing off psychological states for metaphysical statements. But the psychological base has never been questioned seriously. It would, however, be proper to call it autology (the science of self). If the word psychology is to be retained, it must be in the original sense of the word now discarded. The contrast between the old and the new has been well expressed by theRussian philosopher P.D. Ouspensky:

Never in history has psychology stood at so low a level,
lost all touch with its origin and meaning, perhaps the oldest science and, unfortunately,
in its most essential features, a forgotten science, the science of [man's] possible evolution.

Mysticism is that science in which the psychology of man mingles with the psychology of God. The major change or orientation is from the level of the profane to the sacred, an awareness of the divine in man and outside. The source and goal of such a psychology was revealed in the 18th-century Methodist leader John Wesley's dying words: “The best of all is this, that God is with us.”

A mark of the mystic life is the great access of energy and enlarged awareness, so much so that the man who obtains the vision becomes, as it were, another being. Mansions of the mind, maqām (Arabic: “place”), and bhūmi (Sanskrit: “land”), open up to the gaze of the initiate, a wayfarer of the worlds. This means a renewal or conversion until one knows that the earth alone is not man's teacher. The mystic begins to draw his sustenance from supersensuous sources. He has “drunk the Infinite like a giant's wine,” and a hidden bliss, knowledge, and power begin to sweep through the gates of his senses.
Role of identification

The state of energizing is facilitated by controlled attention. It is customary to fix the mind on some object or idea, some focus of contemplation. According to the Indian formula, to worship God one must become like him (devam bhutva devam yajet). Exercises, physical no less than mental, including methods of worship and prayer, have been developed to this end until one becomes what one contemplates. The ranges and creative aspects of the mind are part of the psychology of the mystics and one of the oldest traditions of mankind. The old Indian psychology divided consciousness into three provinces: waking state (jāgrat), dream state (svapna), and sleep state (suṣupti), andadded a fourth (turīya), which is the consciousness of man's pure self-existence or being. The fourfold scale represents the degrees of the ladder of being by which man climbs back to the source, the absolute divine. The change, from “here” to “there,” is not an uneventful process. There come dry periods, deviations, violent alterations, and temptations. If there are raptures and blue heavens, there are python agonies and absolute abandonments, howling deserts and “dark nights of the soul” to go through. Tears of joy, horripilation (bristling of the hair), stigmata (bodily marks or pains), and parapsychological phenomena have been known to develop.

The earlier phases of a naturalistic psychology had no qualms in relegating most of these experiences to the scrap heap of obsolete and archaic vanities, disorders, and morbidities—in a word, hallucination. One reason for such overall denigration was that complacent aliens to the mystical life did not care to distinguish between abnormal and supernormal phenomena. To them all were the same, at best some kind of religious sport. An American Quaker philosopher, Rufus Jones, has noted that psychology, as 20th-century man knows it, is empirical and possesses no ladder by which it can transcend the empirical order.

According to mystics, most men live in a prison, the walls thick with ego, the senses, and restricting interests. But some prisoners develop a passion to scale the walls and move toward an unwalled horizon, an adventure of ideas, if nothing more. Thus, the hypothesis that there might be cherubs and seraphs (angels of knowledge and of love) who call and guide men in the upward way is difficult to ignore. But if the distinction between love and knowledge is at all valid, the achievements of men would seem to be the products of love, since, as Aristotle maintained, the intellect by itself moves nothing. Without “the driving and drawing that we feel in the heart,” mysticism would lack power and might sink into quiescence, as has sometimes happened. To will what the Supreme wills is the supreme secret, the primum mobile. “Nothing burns in hell but self-will” (Theologia Germanica, ch. 34). The mystic approaches this knowledge and mobility even when he is compelled to withdraw from society for long or short periods. But withdrawal without return is not complete. As scientists of the psyche, the mystics insisted on the primacy of the inner factors. Modern psychoanalysis claims to have made available to man's knowledge areas of darkness beneath the conscious levels. However revealing these evidences of the ape and the tiger, psychoanalysis is debarred from understanding the superconscious, and it is viewed by mystics as being less than correct in its reading of the irrational in man. The inescapable pessimism of the psychoanalytic conclusion stands in contrast to the possibilities of self-development and sublimation to which mystics have always pointed.

Among other discoveries on the mystical way is that of ambivalence, or the alternate ways of looking at the world: temporal as against eternal. The double vision characterizes the saint whose life forms a point of intersection between time and timelessness. Mystical psychology assumes a transcendental faculty, in the hiddenness, beyond the threshold. It is committed to a breakthrough and could never have sustained itself without constant verification. In many ways a guarded secret, meant for the competent few, the experiment has hazards and could upset any but the most disciplined. The rousing of energy, the infusion of grace, and confrontation of the levels of reality create tensions and difficulties. Hence, the insistence on moderation and balance on all hands. “The higher the love, the greater the pain,” a voice had consoled a 13th-century German mystic, Mechthild von Magdeburg. “Believe me, children,” wrote a 14th-century German mystic, Johann Tauler, “one who would know much about these matters would often have to keep to his bed, for his bodily frame could not support this.”

These upheavals of “mystic ill health” are part of a developing consciousness that has to move through and adjust to habits of inertia and resistance in the system and to an inability to support the emerging powers and their demands. A little imbalance now and then should take no oneby surprise. The possibility of ranges of consciousness without thinking is one of the basic premises of yogic or mystical psychology. It constitutes a confutation of the formula of the 17th-century French philosopher RenÚ Descartes: cogito ergo sum (“I think; therefore, I am”). Beingcan exist without cogito (or ratio, “reason”) in a direct awareness of things that is the function of intuition, praj˝ā.

Systematic exposition of mystical experience

Attempts of mystics to record the nature of their experiences

The theory or interpretation of mysticism is not mysticism. Generally, there are two sides to the theory: philosophical and practical. There may be another: confessional and justificatory. Though some mystics have been content to record what happened, others have worked out manuals of praxis (techniques), or sādhāna. As a rule, mystical method, experience, and exegesis cannot be sharply set apart from one another. However ineffable, raids on the inarticulate and expositions of the same have not ceased. The expositions have formed part of a particular framework of culture, tradition, and temperament. The 8th- to 9th-century-AD Indian philosopher Śaṅkara and the 16th-century Spanish mystic St. John of the Cross are not likely to talk in the same tone or accent. However universal in intent, all expositions tend to be localized.

The study of comparative mysticism as well as the spirit of the age make it possible and perhaps mandatory for modern man to move toward an open and untethered mysticism, the “ocean of tomorrow.” Indications of this change in attitude and emphasis are not wanting, especially in the 20th-century writings of the Indian mystic philosopher Sri Aurobindo and Teilhard de Chardin, who represent something totally new but allied. R.C. Zaehner has explained that both, though unknown to each other,

not only accepted the theory of evolution, but enthusiastically acclaimed it, indeed were almost obsessed with it.
Both were profoundly influenced by Bergson, both were deeply dissatisfied with organized religion,
and both were vitally concerned not only with individual salvation or “liberation,”
but also with the collective salvation of mankind.

The value and meaning of mystical experience

Among the attempts to explain the value and meaning of mystical experience, a few features may be indicated. Claimed to be a guarantee for order and reconciliation, mysticism does not take away mystery from the world, nor is it essentially irrational. Though in their penchant for the beyond or God-intoxication some mystics have inclined to reject the world, the maturer variety has not divided the world of spirit and matter but has tried to mediate between spirit and matter with the help of emanations, correspondences, and a hierarchy of the real. As a giver of life, mysticism is meant to fulfill and not to destroy. Thus, itneed not be world negating.

Pointing to a scale of senses and levels of mind, mysticism provides an escape from a life of uninspired existence. It magnifies man and gives him a hope and destiny to fulfill. With its abiding sense of the “more,” mysticism may be called the religion of man or the religion of maturity. It offers not irrational developments or inducements but the working out of inherent potentials. Evolution, according to mystics, isnot yet ended.

The mystical life is not for those who are well adjusted and other oriented. In Ramakrishna's homely phrase, at some point or other one has to “take the plunge.” A change so radical calls for a kind of attention other than what most people seem prepared to give. To make it his supreme business one must have a call to holy living. He who seeks the divine must consecrate himself to God and to God only.

Problems of communication and understanding

The problem of communication, of tidings from another country, is obvious. Transvaluation of values is not easy to accept, adjust to, or express. The dialogue between mystical and other pursuits is an unsolved problem. After he had undergone a spiritual experience, the 13th-century Christian philosopher St. Thomas Aquinas is reported to have said, “I have seen that which makes all that I have written and taught look small to me. My writing days are over.” This, fromthe author of the voluminous Summa theologica (“Summary of Theology”), is not without its importance.

Even if it is difficult to describe visions and dangerous to systematize, the direction in which mysticism points is clear: relational transcendence. The 20th-century crises and the mass media suggest the possibility of a mysticism brought up to date that will serve “the Creative Intention that past ages have called God.” Whether it comes through symbols, systems, paradigmatic examples, or extreme situations, there will probably always be some response to the call of the real.

Mysticism as a social factor

Mystical experience is no doubt solo, the experience of a singular person. But more than “a flight of the alone to the Alone,” it could also be a redemption of solitude no less than of society. In the mystic experience, as Jakob B÷hme said, the world is not destroyed but remade. At times a protest against heteronomy (i.e., external authority and ecclesiastical machinery), mysticism has expressed itself in diverse backgrounds and flourished during dark periods of history.

Because of its other-worldly bias, the belief still persists thatthe solitary mystic, absorbed in a vertical relation with God or reality, owes no social responsibility. Altogether an outsider, he has deliberately undergone a civil death. This is not an ideal or wholly accurate picture. “A Mystic who is not of supreme service to the Society is not a Mystic at all” (frompreface to R.D. Ranade, Mysticism in Maharashtra). According to Zen Buddhism, the great contemplative—even when “sitting quietly, doing nothing”—has been a man of action, perhaps the only kind of action that leaves no bitter residue behind. The less extravagant forms of mysticism represent attitudes and principles of charity, detachment, and dedication, which should guide the relation of the individual to the group. The mystics have fought the inner battle and won, creating themselves and their world.

Mysticism proves the individual's capacity to rise above the conditioning factors of nature, nurture, and society and to transform collective life, though this has not been generally recognized. With a hidden and potent force, mystics have tried, as best as circumstances permitted, to mend the universal ill. As in the classic resolve of the bodhisattva (“buddha-to-be”), they have looked forward to universal enlightenment. If the attempt by mystics to create a new order or a better society has failed, the incapacity or defection of the majority may be the reason for the failure.

“Revolution” is a word too often profaned. The change suggested is mainly, if not wholly, from without. In such contrived salvation by compulsion, the inner core is hardly touched. “But it is an eternal law that there can be no compulsion in the realm of the spirit. It is essentially a world of free creative choices” (Rufus Jones, Some Exponents of Mystical Religion). Mystics insist on a change of consciousness, a slower and more difficult process, and also on a scrupulous equation between ends and means. Impatience, deviations, and subterfuges in this respect can be costly, ironic, and instructive. According to mystics, the individuals who will most help the future of humanity will be those who recognize the unfinished and ultimate revolution—the evolution of consciousness—as the destiny and therefore the great need of all men as of society.

Holiness does not mean a retreat from or a rejection of the world. To be a mystic or a seer is not the same thing as beinga spectator on the fence. As the Swedish secretary-general of the United Nations, Dag Hammarskj÷ld, proved with his life, in the modern era the road to holiness necessarily passes through the world of action. Many with a mystical frame of mind look beyond what mystics call quasi-revolutions to a great life—an entire civilization, the civilization of consciousness. The need of synthesis places its stake on the future and the All.

The outcome of the world, the gates of the future,
the entry into the super-human—these are not thrown
opento a few of the privileged nor to one chosen people to the exclusion of all others.
They will open only to an advance of all together.
(From Teilhard de Chardin, ThePhenomenon of Man .)

According to mystics, here may be the outline of a revolutionwhose message has reached but a few. The hope of a Kingdom of Heaven within man and a City of God without remains one of mysticism's gifts to what many mystics view as an evolving humanity.

Sisirkumar Ghose


The Hermetic Cabinet:


(by Alexander Roob)



The hermetic cabinet


Puzzle pictures & linguistic riddles

A rich world of images has etched itself into the memory of modern man, despite the fact that it is not available in public collections, but lies hidden in old manuscripts and prints.

By imbuing them with a special hieroglyphic aura, the creators of these pictures sought to suggest the very great age of their art and to acknowledge the source of their wisdom: the patriarch of natural mysticism and alchemy, Hermes Trismegistus. It was Greek colonists in late classical Egypt who identified their healing, winged messenger of the gods, Hermes (Lat. Mer-curius) with the ancient Egyptian Thoth, the 'Thrice Greatest'. Thoth was the god of writing and magic, worshipped, like Hermes, as the psychopompos, the souls'guide through the underworld. The mythical figure of Hermes Trismegistus was also linked to a legendary pharaoh who was supposed to have taught the Egyptians all their knowledge of natural and supernatural things, including their knowledge of hieroglyphic script. The alchemists saw him as their "Moses" who had handed down the divine commandments of their art in the "emerald tablet". This Tabula Smaragdina, now believed to date back to the 6th-8th centuries A.D., became known to the Christian world after the 14th century through translations from the Arabic.

Also from Hermes, messenger of the gods, comes Легте-neutics, the art of textual interpretation, and according to the author of the Buch der Heiligen Dreifa/tigkeit (Book of the Holy Trinity, 1415), the first alchemical text in the German language, this occurs in four directions: in the natural, supernatural, divine and human sense. As used by its most distinguished representatives, alchemical literature possesses a suggestive language, rich in allegories, homophony and word-play which, often through the mediation of Jacob Bohme's theosophical works, has had a profound effect on the poetry of Romanticism (Blake, Novalis), the philosophy of German idealism (Hegel, Schelling) and on modern literature (Yeats, Joyce, Rimbaud, Breton, Artaud).

Many voices, even from within their own ranks, were raised against the "obscure idioms" of the alchemists. And their own account of their communication technique hardly sounds more encouraging: "Wherever we have spoken openly we have (actually) said nothing. But where we have written something in code and in pictures we have concealed the truth." (Rosarium philoso-phorum, Weinheim edition, 1990)

The tendency towards arcane language in "obscure speeches" in numbers and in enigmatic pictures, is explained by a profound scepticism about the expressive possibilities of literal language, subjected to Babylonian corruption, which holds the Holy Spirit fettered in its grammatical bonds. The prehistoric knowledge, the prisca sapientia that was revealed directly to Adam and Moses by God, and which was handed down in a long, elite chain of tradition, had to be preserved in such a way that it was protected against the abuse of the profane. To this end, Hermes Trismegistus, who, like Zoroaster, Pythagoras and Plato, was seen as a major link in this hermetic chain, developed hieroglyphs.

The Renaissance idea of Egyptian hieroglyphs took them to be a symbolic, rebus-like, esoteric script. This was influenced by the treatise of a 5th century Egyptian by the name of Horapollo, in which he provided a symbolic key to some 200 signs.

Horapollo's 'Hieroglyphica' also formed the basis forthe development, in the mid-i6th century, of emblems, symbols which are always connected with a short motto and generally accompanied by an explanatory commentary. They were very popular in the Baroque, and proved to be an ideal vehicle forthe communication of paradoxical alchemical teaching aids and maxims.

Emphasizing their broad theoretical foundations, the alchemists often termed themselves "philosophers", describing their work simply as "art" (ars) or "philosophical art".

The heyday of hermetic emblems and the art of illustration coincided with the decline in "classical" alchemy, which was still capable of combining technical skills and practical experience with spiritual components. Theosophical alchemists like the Rosi-crucians and practising laboratory chemists like Andreas Libavius, who sought to improve the empirical foundations of alchemy and thereby brought it closer to analytical chemistry, were already irreconcilable by the beginning of the 17th century. Although Rosi-crucians did boast that "godless and accursed gold-making" was easy for them, this was a ludicrous and marginal pursuit in comparison with the main pursuit of inner purification: their gold was the spiritual gold of the theologians.

Gnosis and Neoplatonism

For the art historian Aby Warburg (1866-1929), who did pioneering interdisciplinary work in the early years of the 20th century, late classical Alexandria represented the epitome of the dark, superstitious side of man. Here, in the irst century A. D., in the former centre of Greek culture on Egyptian soil, with its highly diverse mixture of peoples, Greek and Roman colonists, Egyptians and Jews, the threads of all the individual disciplines making up the complex of hermetic philosophy came together: alchemy, astral magic and the Cabala. The complementary syncretic systems that nourished them, hybrids of Hellenic philosophies and oriental religions and mystery cults, are known by the two concepts of Gnosis and Neoplatonism. Both are fundamentally animistic, filled with many demonic and angelic creatures, whose power and influence determine human fate.

Gnosis means knowledge, and the Gnostics acquired this in a number of ways. The first and most fundamental form of knowledge is good news, and concerns the divine nature of one's own essence: the soul appears as a divine spark of light. The second is bad news and concerns the "terror of the situation": the spark of light is subject to the influence of external dark forces, in the exile of matter. Imprisoned within the coarse dungeon of the body, it is betrayed by the external senses; the demonic stars sully and bewitch the divine essence of one's nature in order to prevent a return to the divine home.

Under the stimulus of Zoroastrian and Platonic dualism, a painful gulf opened up between the interior and the external, between subjective and objective experience, between spirit and matter. It was cosmologically established by Aristotle (384-322 B.C.), with a strict division of the universe into the eternal, ethereal heaven and the transient sublunary sphere. This model, only slightly modified by the Alexandrian Gnostic Claudio Ptolemy (c. A.D. 100-178), suppressed all efforts at a unified explanation of the world fortwo millennia.

In many Gnostic myths man is given an autonomous task of creation: in order to heal the sick organism of the world, he must lead the divine sparks of light, spiritual gold, through the seven planetary spheres of the Ptolemaic cosmos and back to their heavenly home. To the outermost sphere of Saturn corresponds the "sullied garment of the soul", the grossest material, lead. Passing through this sphere meant physical death and the putrefaction of matter that is a necessary prerequisite transformation. The subsequent stages were: Jupiter-tin, Mars-iron, Venus-copper, Mercury-quicksilver, Moon-silver and Sun-gold.

The individual metals were taken to represent various degrees of maturity or illness of the same basic material on its way to perfection, to gold. To ease its passage through the seven gates of the planetary demons, gnosis, the knowledge of astral magic practices, was required.

The Neoplatonists took the various diverging concepts that their master had put forward dialectically in his dialogues and poured them into the tight corset of tiered, pyramid-shaped world orders. Like a descending scale of creation, the universe overflows from the uppermost One, the good, its intervals following the harmonic laws linked with the name of the philosopher Pythagoras (6th century B.C.) and his doctrine of the music of the spheres. The inner discord of the Gnostics was unknown to them. Between the two poles of Plato's philosophy, the static and immortal world of the celestial forms and the moving and transient world of their likenesses on earth, they inserted a series of mediating authorities.

Corresponding to the tripartite division of the small world of man [microcosm) into body, soul and spirit was a cosmic soul which dwelled in the realm of the stars. This cosmic soul reflected the ideas of the higher, transcendental sphere of the divine intellect, and through the influence of the stars these ideas imprinted their eternal "symbols" on the lower, physical transient sphere.

Man thereby has the possibility of manipulating events in the earthly sphere, using magical practices such as the manufacture of talismans, spells and other such things to affect this middle sphere

of the cosmic soul. Contact is established through the fine material of the "sidereal" or "astral body" that invisibly surrounds man. Before the Fall, according to the Gnostic-Cabalistic myths, the whole of heaven was a single human being of fine material, the giant, androgynous, primordial Adam, who is now in every human being, in the shrunken form of this invisible body, and who is waiting to be brought back to heaven. Man can communicate with the macrocosm through this sidereal medium, and thus receives premonitions and prophecies in dreams.

The equivalent in man of the demiurgic, world-creating drive of the outer stars is the creative capacity of the imagination, which Paracelsus calls "the inner star". Imagination is not to be confused with fantasy. The former is seen as a solar, structuring force aimed at the eida, the paradigmatic forms in the "real world", the latter as a lunatic delusion related to the eidola, the shadowy likenesses of the "apparent world".

In the Middle Ages Neoplatonism chiefly found its way into the mysticism of the Eastern Church. Although it was by no means incompatible with the rigidly hierarchical structures of the medieval state and Church, in the West it led a shadowy existence on the edge of the great scholastic theoretical structure.

But in the Renaissance the flow of Alexandrian tradition forged powerfully ahead: in 1463 Marsilio Ficino(i433—1499) translated a collection of fourteen Gnostic and Neoplatonist treatises from the early Christian period. Also attributed to the "Thrice Greatest Hermes", this collection was well-known under the title Corpus Hermeticum. These texts made a profound impression on the humanist intellectual world, for although they were ostensibly ancient pagan writings they still seemed to be written entirely in the tone of the New Testament, and to be imbued with the Christian spirit. Moreover, the idea of ancient Jewish teachings that reached all the way back to Moses - the Cabala - as conveyed by Picino's friend, Pico della Mirandola (1463-1494) reinforced the suspicion of a prisca sapientia in the Christian spirit. (In fact the Cabala, in its familiarform, was only developed out of its Alexandrian foundations in Spain and Southern France in the 12th and 13th centuries.)

The effects of Gnostic consciousness on European intellectual life are so comprehensive and omnipresent that their extent is hard to assess: the man of the Corpus Hermeticum, blessed with divine creative powers, merges with the image of the Renaissance man, who has begun to free himself from the bonds of the tiered, medieval cosmos and thereby moves towards the centre of the universe.

The Gnostic spark of light, which strives for divine knowledge out of the darkness of the world, is reflected in the individual Protestant soul's struggle for salvation.

Only a few alchemists were familiar with the Corpus Hermeticum. For them all, however, Hermes was associated with the figure who had brought them the Emerald Tablet, and with the moist, "mercurial" principle which they called the "beginning and end of the Work". The veneration of this "divine water" reached back to the upper, pneumatic waters of Gnosis which, in Greek writings from the early years of alchemy, in reference to the descent of the Gnostic Christ, flowed down into the darkness of matter to awaken the dead bodies of their metals from their slumber.

However, alchemy, as it reached Christian Europe via Spain in the 12th and 13th centuries, is much richer and more mysterious than the mystical writings of the early Alexandrian alchemists would suggest. To do justice to the "Royal Art", we might use the tripartite separation much loved by the Hermetics: according to which the part corresponding to the soul was to be found in Egyptian Alexandria. But it owes its corpus, its great wealth of practical experiences, of technical knowledge, code names, maxims and allegorical images, to its development by the Arabs. And its spirit, finally, lies within the natural philosophy of ancient Greece, where its theoretical foundations were laid in the 5th century B.C.

Concepts of natural philosophy

It is said of the philosopher and thaumaturge Empedocles that he asserted the existence of two suns. The hermetic doctrines also include a double sun, and distinguish between a bright spirit-sun, the "philosophical gold", and the dark natural sun, corresponding to "material gold". The former consists of the essential fire that is conjoined with the ether or the 'glowing air'.

Empedocles also taught that all life lay in the movement resuiting from the clash between the two polar forces, love and conflict. In the Opus Magnum these correspond to the two alternating processes of dissolution and coagulation, disintegration and bonding, distillation and condensation. They correspond to the two polar agents of Arabic alchemy: mercury and sulphur, philosophical quicksilver and brimstone, sun and moon, white woman and red man. The climax of the Work is the moment of conjunctio, the conjunction of the male and female principle in the marriage of heaven and earth, of fiery spirit and watery matter (materia from the Latin mater, mother). The indestructible product of this cosmic sex act is the lapis, the "red son of the Sun".

In alchemy, the necessary counterforce to mercury, a force which also defines and shapes, is represented by male sulphur. Paracelsus added a further principle to the medieval doctrine of the dual principles, thereby making a decisive contribution to a more dynamic view of the natural processes.

Paracelsus identified the third fundamental principle as salt. Its property as a solid corresponds to that of the body. Sulphur, with its property of greasy, oily combustibility, mediates in the position of the soul. And mercury, the fluid principle with a propensity to sublimation, is the volatile intellect.

These Paracelsian Tria Prima are not chemical substances, but spiritual forces, from whose changeable proportions the invisible blacksmiths or craftsmen of nature produce the transient material compositions of the objective world. In more modern, speculative alchemy, particularly in the Masonic beliefs of the 18th century, the arcanum salt finally moved into the centre of hermetic, gnostic mysticism. Because of its curative properties it was often interpreted in Christological terms as the "coagulated light of the world", the "secret central fire" or the "salt of wisdom".

The doctrine of the four elements also goes back to Empe-docles. He referred to them as the "four roots of all things": earth, water, air and fire. Hippocrates applied it as the theory of the four humours to the microcosm, and in the 4th century B.C. this theory was considerably refined by Aristotle. He traced all elements back to a common, prime matter, the prote hyle оr prima materia. The alchemists also described this as "our chaos" or the "dark lump" that resulted from the fall of Lucifer and Adam. Accordingly, to sublimate it and elevate it to the lapis meant nothing less than bringing fallen creation back to its paradisal, primal state.

According to Aristotle, the prima materia conjoins with the four qualities of dryness, coldness, moisture and heat, thus developing to form the four elements. By manipulating these qualities, it was also possible, so he thought, to change the elemental combinations of materials, thereby bringing about theirtransmutation.

Accordingly, the work of the alchemist lies "only in the 'rotation' of the elements".

According to a law attributed to Pythagoras, quadernity defines the spectrum of all earthly possibilities. The Aristotelian fifth element, the refined "quintessence", is thus found only in the upper divine fiery heaven. It was the goal of all alchemists to bring this fifth element down to earth through the repeated transmutations that their work entailed. This meant that they would often be distilling alcohol or imagining the divine light to be within salt.













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