The Phallic Element in Alchemical Doctrine

By H. Stanley Redgrove.

THE problem of alchemy presents many aspects to our view, but, to my mind, the most fundamental of these is psychological, or, perhaps I should say, epistemological.  It has been said that the proper study of mankind is man; and to study man we must study the beliefs of man.  Now so long as we neglect great tracts of such beliefs, because they have been, or appear to have been, superseded, so long will our study be incomplete and ineffectual.  And this, let me add, is no mere excuse for the study of alchemy, no mere afterthought put forward in justification of a predilection, but a plain statement of fact that renders this study an imperative need.  There are other questions of interest—of very great interest—concerning alchemy: questions, for instance, as to the scope and validity of its doctrines; but we ought not to allow their fascination and promise to distract our attention from the fundamental problem, whose solution is essential to their elucidation.

In the preceding essay on “The Quest of the Philosopher’s Stone,” which was written from the standpoint I have sketched in the foregoing words, my thesis was “that the alchemists constructed their chemical theories for the main part by means of a priori reasoning, and that the premises from which they started were (i.) the truth of mystical theology, especially the doctrine of the soul’s regeneration, and (ii.) the truth of mystical philosophy, which asserts that the objects of nature are symbols of spiritual verities.”  Now, I wish to treat my present thesis, which is concerned with a further source from which the alchemists derived certain of their views and modes of expression by means of a priori reasoning, in connection with, and, in a sense, as complementary to, my former thesis.  I propose in the first place, therefore, briefly to deal with certain possible objections to this view of alchemy.

It has, for instance, been maintained[1] that the assimilation of alchemical doctrines concerning the metals to those of mysticism concerning the soul was an event late in the history of alchemy, and was undertaken in the interests of the latter doctrines.  Now we know that certain mystics of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries did borrow from the alchemists much of their terminology with which to discourse of spiritual mysteries—JACOB BOEHME, HENRY KHUNRATH, and perhaps THOMAS VAUGHAN, may be mentioned as the most prominent cases in point. But how was this possible if it were not, as I have suggested, the repayment, in a sense, of a sort of philological debt?  Transmutation was an admirable vehicle of language for describing the soul’s regeneration, just because the doctrine of transmutation was the result of an attempt to apply the doctrine of regeneration in the sphere of metallurgy; and similar remarks hold of the other prominent doctrines of alchemy.

[1] See, for example, Mr. A. E. WAITE’S paper, “The Canon of Criticism in respect of Alchemical Literature,” The Journal of the Alchemical Society, vol. i. (1913), pp. 17-30.


The wonderful fabric of alchemical doctrine was not woven in a day, and as it passed from loom to loom, from Byzantium to Syria, from Syria to Arabia, from Arabia to Spain and Latin Europe, so its pattern changed; but it was always woven a priori, in the belief that that which is below is as that which is above.  In its final form, I think, it is distinctly Christian.

In the Turba Philosophorum, the oldest known work of Latin alchemy—a work which, claiming to be of Greek origin, whilst not that, is certainly Greek in spirit,--we frequently come across statements of a decidedly mystical character.  “The regimen,” we read, “is greater than is perceived by reason, except through divine inspiration.”[1] Copper, it is insisted upon again and again, has a soul as well as a body; and the Art, we are told, is to be defined as “the liquefaction of the body and the separation of the soul from the body, seeing that copper, like a man, has a soul and a body.”[2] Moreover, other doctrines are here propounded which, although not so obviously of a mystical character, have been traced to mystical sources in the preceding excursion.  There is, for instance, the doctrine of purification by means of putrefaction, this process being likened to that of the resurrection of man.  “These things being done,” we read, “God will restore unto it [the matter operated on] both the soul and the spirit thereof, and the weakness being taken away, that matter will be made strong, and after corruption will be improved, even as a man becomes stronger after resurrection and younger than he was in this world.”[1b]  The three stages in the alchemical work—black, white, and red—corresponding to, and, as I maintain, based on the three stages in the life of the mystic, are also more than once mentioned.  “Cook them [the king and his wife], therefore, until they become black, then white, afterwards red, and finally until a tingeing venom is produced.”[2b]

[1] The Turba Philosophorum, or Assembly of the Sages (trans. by A. E. WAITE, 1896), p. 128.

[2] Ibid., p. 193, cf. pp. 102 and 152.

[1b] The Turba Philosophorum, or Assembly of the Sages (trans. by A. E. WAITE), p. 101, cf. pp. 27 and 197.

[2b] Ibid., p. 98, cf. p. 29.


In view of these quotations, the alliance (shall I say?) between alchemy and mysticism cannot be asserted to be of late origin.  And we shall find similar statements if we go further back in time.  To give but one example:  “Among the earliest authorities,” writes Mr. WAITE, “the Book of Crates says that copper, like man, has a spirit, soul, and body,” the term “copper” being symbolical and applying to a stage in the alchemical work.  But nowhere in the Turba do we meet with the concept of the Philosopher’s Stone as the medicine of the metals, a concept characteristic of Latin alchemy, and, to quote Mr. WAITE again, “it does not appear that the conception of the Philosopher’s Stone as a medicine of metals and of men was familiar to Greek alchemy;”[3]

[3] Ibid., p. 71.


All this seems to me very strongly to support my view of the origin of alchemy, which requires a specifically Christian mysticism only for this specific concept of the Philosopher’s Stone in its fully-fledged form.  At any rate, the development of alchemical doctrine can be seen to have proceeded concomitantly with the development of mystical philosophy and theology.  Those who are not prepared here to see effect and cause may be asked not only to formulate some other hypothesis in explanation of the origin of alchemy, but also to explain this fact of concomitant development.

From the standpoint of the transcendental theory of alchemy it has been urged “that the language of mystical theology seemed to be hardly so suitable to the exposition [as I maintain] or concealment of chemical theories, as the language of a definite and generally credited branch of science was suited to the expression of a veiled and symbolical process such as the regeneration of man.”[1] But such a statement is only possible with respect to the latest days of alchemy, when there WAS a science of chemistry, definite and generally credited.  The science of chemistry, it must be remembered, had no growth separate from alchemy, but evolved therefrom.  Of the days before this evolution had been accomplished, it would be in closer accord with the facts to say that theology, including the doctrine of man’s regeneration, was in the position of “a definite and generally credited branch of science,” whereas chemical phenomena were veiled in deepest mystery and tinged with the dangers appertaining to magic.  As concerns the origin of alchemy, therefore, the argument as to suitability of language appears to support my own theory; it being open to assume that after formulation—that is, in alchemy’s latter days—chemical nomenclature and theories were employed by certain writers to veil heterodox religious doctrine.

[1] PHILIP S. WELLBY, M.A., in The Journal of the Alchemical Society, vol. ii. (1914), p. 104.


Another recent writer on the subject, my friend the late Mr. ABDUL-ALI, has remarked that “he thought that, in the mind of the alchemist at least, there was something more than analogy between metallic and psychic transformations, and that the whole subject might well be assigned to the doctrinal category of ineffable and transcendent Oneness.  This Oneness comprehended all—soul and body, spirit and matter, mystic visions and waking life—and the sharp metaphysical distinction between the mental and the non-mental realms, so prominent during the history of philosophy, was not regarded by these early investigators in the sphere of nature.  There was the sentiment, perhaps only dimly experienced, that not only the law, but the substance of the Universe, was one; that mind was everywhere in contact with its own kindred; and that metallic transmutation would, somehow, so to speak, signalize and seal a hidden transmutation of the soul.”[1]

[1] SIJIL ABDUL-ALI, in The Journal of the Alchemical Society, vol. ii. (1914), p. 102.


I am to a large extent in agreement with this view.  Mr. ABDUL-ALI quarrels with the term “analogy,” and, if it is held to imply any merely superficial resemblance, it certainly is not adequate to my own needs, though I know not what other word to use.  SWEDENBORG’S term “correspondence” would be better for my purpose, as standing for an essential connection between spirit and matter, arising out of the causal relationship of the one to the other. But if SWEDENBORG believed that matter and spirit were most intimately related, he nevertheless had a very precise idea of their distinctness, which he formulated in his Doctrine of Degrees—a very exact metaphysical doctrine indeed.  The alchemists, on the other hand, had no such clear ideas on the subject.  It would be even more absurd to attribute to them a Cartesian dualism.  To their ways of thinking, it was by no means impossible to grasp the spiritual essences of things by what we should now call chemical manipulations.  For them a gas was still a ghost and air a spirit.  One could quote pages in support of this, but I will content myself with a few words from the Turba--the antiquity of the book makes it of value, and anyway it is near at hand. “Permanent water,” whatever that may be, being pounded with the body, we are told, “by the will of God it turns that body into spirit.”  And in another place we read that “the Philosophers have said: Except ye turn bodies into not-bodies, and incorporeal things into bodies, ye have not yet discovered the rule of operation.”[1a] No one who could write like this, and believe it, could hold matter and spirit as altogether distinct.  But it is equally obvious that the injunction to convert body into spirit is meaningless if spirit and body are held to be identical.  I have been criticized for crediting the alchemists “with the philosophic acumen of Hegel,”[1b] but that is just what I think one ought to avoid doing.  At the same time, however, it is extremely difficult to give a precise account of views which are very far from being precise themselves.  But I think it may be said, without fear of error, that the alchemist who could say, “As above, so below,” ipso facto recognized both a very close connection between spirit and matter, and a distinction between them.  Moreover, the division thus implied corresponded, on the whole, to that between the realms of the known (or what was thought to be known) and the unknown.  The Church, whether Christian or pre-Christian, had very precise (comparatively speaking) doctrine concerning the soul’s origin, duties, and destiny, backed up by tremendous authority, and speculative philosophy had advanced very far by the time PLATO began to concern himself with its problems.  Nature, on the other hand, was a mysterious world of magical happenings, and there was nothing deserving of the name of natural science until alchemy was becoming decadent.  It is not surprising, therefore, that the alchemists—these men who wished to probe Nature’s hidden mysteries—should reason from above to below; indeed, unless they had started de novo--as babes knowing nothing,--there was no other course open to them.  And that they did adopt the obvious course is all that my former thesis amounts to.  In passing, it is interesting to note that a sixteenth-century alchemist, who had exceptional opportunities and leisure to study the works of the old masters of alchemy, seems to have come to a similar conclusion as to the nature of their reasoning.  He writes:  “The Sages . . . after having conceived in their minds a Divine idea of the relations of the whole universe . . . selected from among the rest a certain substance, from which they sought to elicit the elements, to separate and purify them, and then again put them together in a manner suggested by a keen and profound observation of Nature.”[1c]

[1a] op cit., pp,. 65 and 110, cf. p. 154.

[1b] Vide a rather frivolous review of my Alchemy:  Ancient and Modern in The Outlook for 14th January 1911.

[1c] EDWARD KELLY:  The Humid Path. (See The Alchemical Writings of EDWARD KELLY, edited by A. E. WAITE, 1893, pp. 59-60.)


In describing the realm of spirit as ex hypothesi known, that of Nature unknown, to the alchemists, I have made one important omission, and that, if I may use the name of a science to denominate a complex of crude facts, is the realm of physiology, which, falling within that of Nature, must yet be classed as ex hypothesi known.  But to elucidate this point some further considerations are necessary touching the general nature of knowledge.  Now, facts may be roughly classed, according to their obviousness and frequency of occurrence, into four groups.  There are, first of all, facts which are so obvious, to put it paradoxically, that they escape notice; and these facts are the commonest and most frequent in their occurrence.  I think it is Mr. CHESTERTON who has said that, looking at a forest one cannot see the trees because of the forest; and, in The Innocence of Father Brown, he has a good story (“The Invisible Man”) illustrating the point, in which a man renders himself invisible by dressing up in a postman’s uniform.  At any rate, we know that when a phenomenon becomes persistent it tends to escape observation; thus, continuous motion can only be appreciated with reference to a stationary body, and a noise, continually repeated, becomes at last inaudible.  The tendency of often-repeated actions to become habitual, and at last automatic, that is to say, carried out without consciousness, is a closely related phenomenon.  We can understand, therefore, why a knowledge of the existence of the atmosphere, as distinct from the wind, came late in the history of primitive man, as, also, many other curious gaps in his knowledge.  In the second group we may put those facts which are common, that is, of frequent occurrence, and are classed as obvious.  Such facts are accepted at face-value by the primitive mind, and are used as the basis of explanation of facts in the two remaining groups, namely, those facts which, though common, are apt to escape the attention owing to their inconspicuousness, and those which are of infrequent occurrence.  When the mind takes the trouble to observe a fact of the third group, or is confronted by one of the fourth, it feels a sense of surprise.  Such facts wear an air of strangeness, and the mind can only rest satisfied when it has shown them to itself as in some way cases of the second group of facts, or, at least, brought them into relation therewith.  That is what the mind—at least the primitive mind—means by “explanation”.  “It is obvious,” we say, commencing an argument, thereby proclaiming our intention to bring that which is at first in the category of the not-obvious, into the category of the obvious.  It remains for a more skeptical type of mind—a later product of human evolution—to question obvious facts, to explain them, either, as in science, by establishing deeper and more far-reaching correlations between phenomena, or in philosophy, by seeking for the source and purpose of such facts, or, better still, by both methods.

Of the second class of facts—those common and obvious facts which the primitive mind accepts at face-value and uses as the basis of its explanations of such things as seem to it to stand in need of explanation—one could hardly find a better instance than sex.  The universality of sex, and the intermittent character of its phenomena, are both responsible for this.  Indeed, the attitude of mind I have referred to is not restricted to primitive man; how many people to-day, for instance, just accept sex as a fact, pleasant or unpleasant according to their predilections, never querying, or feeling the need to query, its why and wherefore?  It is by no means surprising, that when man first felt the need of satisfying himself as to the origin of the universe, he should have done so by a theory founded on what he knew of his own generation.  Indeed, as I queried on a former occasion, what other source of explanation was open to him?  Of what other form of origin was he aware?  Seeing Nature springing to life at the kiss of the sun, what more natural than that she should be regarded as the divine Mother, who bears fruits because impregnated by the Sun-God? It is not difficult to understand, therefore, why primitive man paid divine honors to the organs of sex in man and woman, or to such things as he considered symbolical of them—that is to say, to understand the extensiveness of those religions which are grouped under the term “phallicism”. Nor, to my mind, is the symbol of sex a wholly inadequate one under which to conceive of the origin of things.  And, as I have said before, that phallicism usually appears to have degenerated into immorality of a very pronounced type is to be deplored, but an immoral view of human relations is by no means a necessary corollary to a sexual theory of the universe.[1]

[1] “The reverence as well as the worship paid to the phallus, in early and primitive days, had nothing in it which partook of indecency; all ideas connected with it were of a reverential and religious kind....

“The indecent ideas attached to the representation of the phallus were, though it seems a paradox to say so, the results of a more advanced civilization verging towards its decline, as we have evidence at Rome and Pompeii....

“To the primitive man [the reproductive force which pervades all nature] was the most mysterious of all manifestations. The visible physical powers of nature—the sun, the sky, the storm—naturally claimed his reverence, but to him the generative power was the most mysterious of all powers.  In the vegetable world, the live seed placed in the ground, and hence germinating, sprouting up, and becoming a beautiful and umbrageous tree, was a mystery.  In the animal world, as the cause of all life, by which all beings came into existence, this power was a mystery.  In the view of primitive man generation was the action of the Deity itself.  It was the mode in which He brought all things into existence, the sun, the moon, the stars, the world, man were generated by Him.  To the productive power man was deeply indebted, for to it he owed the harvests and the flocks which supported his life; hence it naturally became an object of reverence and worship.

“Primitive man wants some object to worship, for an abstract idea is beyond his comprehension, hence a visible representation of the generative Deity was made, with the organs contributing to generation most prominent, and hence the organ itself became a symbol of the power.”—H, M. WESTROPP:  Primitive Symbolism as Illustrated in Phallic Worship, or the Reproductive Principle (1885), pp. 47, 48, and 57.


The Aruntas of Australia, I believe, when discovered by Europeans, had not yet observed the connection between sexual intercourse and birth.  They believed that conception was occasioned by the woman passing near a churinga--a peculiarly shaped piece of wood or stone, in which a spirit-child was concealed, which entered into her.  But archaeological research having established the fact that phallicism has, at one time or another, been common to nearly all races, it seems probable that the Arunta tribe represents a deviation from the normal line of mental evolution.  At any rate, an isolated phenomenon, such as this, cannot be held to controvert the view that regards phallicism as in this normal line.  Nor was the attitude of mind that not only accepts sex at face-value as an obvious fact, but uses the concept of it to explain other facts, a merely transitory one.  We may, indeed, not difficultly trace it throughout the history of alchemy, giving rise to what I may term “The Phallic Element in Alchemical Doctrine”.

In aiming to establish this, I may be thought to be endeavoring to establish a counter-thesis to that of the preceding essay on alchemy, but, in virtue of the alchemists’ belief in the mystical unity of all things, in the analogical or correspondential relationship of all parts of the universe to each other, the mystical and the phallic views of the origin of alchemy are complementary, not antagonistic.  Indeed, the assumption that the metals are the symbols of man almost necessitates the working out of physiological as well as mystical analogies, and these two series of analogies are themselves connected, because the principle “As above, so below” was held to be true of man himself.  We might, therefore, expect to find a more or less complete harmony between the two series of symbols, though, as a matter of fact, contradictions will be encountered when we come to consider points of detail.  The undoubtable antiquity of the phallic element in alchemical doctrine precludes the idea that this element was an adventitious one, that it was in any sense an afterthought; notwithstanding, however, the evidence, as will, I hope, become apparent as we proceed, indicates that mystical ideas played a much more fundamental part in the genesis of alchemical doctrine than purely phallic ones—mystical interpretations fit alchemical processes and theories far better than do sexual interpretations; in fact, sex has to be interpreted somewhat mystically in order to work out the analogies fully and satisfactorily.

As concerns Greek alchemy, I shall content myself with a passage from a work On the Sacred Art, attributed to OLYMPIODORUS (sixth century A.D.), followed by some quotations from and references to the Turba.  In the former work it is stated on the authority of HORUS that “The proper end of the whole art is to obtain the semen of the male secretly, seeing that all things are male and female. Hence [we read further]

Horus says in a certain place: Join the male and the female, and you will find that which is sought; as a fact, without this process of re-union, nothing can succeed, for Nature charms Nature,” etc.  The Turba insistently commands those who would succeed in the Art, to conjoin the male with the female,[1] and, in one place, the male is said to be lead and the female orpiment.[2] We also find the alchemical work symbolized by the growth of the embryo in the womb.  “Know,” we are told, “. . . that out of the elect things nothing becomes useful without conjunction and regimen, because sperma is generated out of blood and desire. For the man mingling with the woman, the sperm is nourished by the humor of the womb, and by the moistening blood, and by heat, and when forty nights have elapsed the sperm is formed.... God has constituted that heat and blood for the nourishment of the sperm until the fetus is brought forth.  So long as it is little, it is nourished with milk, and in proportion as the vital heat is maintained, the bones are strengthened.  Thus it behooves you also to act in this Art.”[3]

[1] Vide pp. 60 92, 96 97, 134, 135 and elsewhere in Mr. WAITE’S translation.

[2] Ibid., p. 57

[3] Ibid., pp. 179-181 (second recension); cf. pp. 103-104.


The use of the mystical symbols of death (putrefaction) and resurrection or rebirth to represent the consummation of the alchemical work, and that of the phallic symbols of the conjunction of the sexes and the development of the fetus, both of which we have found in the Turba, are current throughout the course of Latin alchemy.  In The Chymical Marriage of Christian Rosencreutz, that extraordinary document of what is called “Rosicrucianism”—a symbolic romance of considerable ability, whoever its author was,[1]--an attempt is made to weld the two sets of symbols—the one of marriage, the other of death and resurrection unto glory—into one allegorical narrative; and it is to this fusion of seemingly disparate concepts that much of its fantasticality is due.  Yet the concepts are not really disparate; for not only is the second birth like unto the first, and not only is the resurrection unto glory described as the Bridal Feast of the Lamb, but marriage is, in a manner, a form of death and rebirth.  To justify this in a crude sense, I might say that, from the male standpoint at least, it is a giving of the life-substance to the beloved that life may be born anew and increase.  But in a deeper sense it is, or rather should be, as an ideal, a mutual sacrifice of self for each other’s good—a death of the self that it may arise with an enriched personality.

[1] See Mr. WAITE’S The Real History of the Rosicrucians (1887) for translation and discussion as to origin and significance. The work was first published (in German) at Strassburg in 1616.


It is when we come to an examination of the ideas at the root of, and associated with, the alchemical concept of “principles,” that we find some difficulty in harmonizing the two series of symbols—the mystical and the phallic.  In one place in the Turba we are directed “to take quicksilver, in which is the male potency or strength”;[2a] and this concept of mercury as male is quite in accord with the mystical origin I have assigned in the preceding excursion to the doctrine of the alchemical principles.  I have shown, I think, that salt, sulphur, and mercury are the analogues ex hypothesi of the body, soul (affection and volition), and spirit (intelligence or understanding) in man; and the affections are invariably regarded as especially feminine, the understanding as especially masculine.  But it seems that the more common opinion, amongst Latin alchemists at any rate, was that sulphur was male and mercury female.  Writes BERNARD of TREVISAN:  “For the Matter suffereth, and the Form acteth assimulating the Matter to itself, and according to this manner the Matter naturally thirsteth after a Form, as a Woman desireth an Husband, and a Vile thing a precious one, and an impure a pure one, so also Argent-vive coveteth a Sulphur, as that which should make perfect which is imperfect:  So also a Body freely desireth a Spirit, whereby it may at length arrive at its perfection.”[1b] At the same time, however, Mercury was regarded as containing in itself both male and female potencies—it was the product of male and female, and, thus, the seed of all the metals.  “Nothing in the World can be generated,” to repeat a quotation from BERNARD, without these two Substances, to wit a Male and Female:  From whence it appeareth, that although these two substances are not of one and the same species, yet one Stone doth thence arise, and although they appear and are said to be two Substances, yet in truth it is but one, to wit, Argent-vive.  But of this Argent-vive a certain part is fixed and digested, Masculine, hot, dry and secretly informing.  But the other, which is the Female, is volatile, crude, cold, and moyst.”[2b]  EDWARD KELLY (1555-1595), who is valuable because he summarizes authoritative opinion, says somewhat the same thing, though in clearer words:  “The active elements . . . these are water and fire . . . may be called male, while the passive elements . . . earth and air . . . represent the female principle.... Only two elements, water and earth, are visible, and earth is called the hiding-place of fire, water the abode of air.  In these two elements we have the broad law of limitation which divides the male from the female.  . . . The first matter of minerals is a kind of viscous water, mingled with pure and impure earth. . . Of this viscous water and fusible earth, or sulphur, is composed that which is called quicksilver, the first matter of the metals.  Metals are nothing but Mercury digested by different degrees of heat.”[1c]  There is one difference, however, between these two writers, inasmuch as BERNARD says that “the Male and Female abide together in closed Natures; the Female truly as it were Earth and Water, the Male as Air and Fire.”  Mercury for him arises from the two former elements, sulphur from the two latter.[2c] And the difference is important as showing beyond question the a priori nature of alchemical reasoning.  The idea at the back of the alchemists’ minds was undoubtedly that of the ardor of the male in the act of coition and the alleged, or perhaps I should say apparent, passivity of the female.  Consequently, sulphur, the fiery principle of combustion, and such elements as were reckoned to be active, were denominated “male,” whilst mercury, the principle acted on by sulphur, and such elements as were reckoned to be passive, were denominated “female”. As to the question of origin, I do not think that the palm can be denied to the mystical as distinguished from the phallic theory.  And in its final form the doctrine of principles is incapable of a sexual interpretation.  Mystically understood, man is capable of analysis into two principles—since “body” may be neglected as unimportant (a false view, I think, by the way) or “soul” and “spirit” may be united under one head—OR into three; whereas the postulation of THREE principles on a sexual basis is impossible.  JOANNES ISAACUS HOLLANDUS (fifteenth century) is the earliest author in whose works I have observed explicit mention of THREE principles, though he refers to them in a manner seeming to indicate that the doctrine was no new one in his day.  I have only read one little tract of his; there is nothing sexual in it, and the author’s mental character may be judged from his remarks concerning “the three flying spirits”—taste, smell, and color.  These, he writes, “are the life, soule, and quintessence of every thing, neither can these three spirits be one without the other, as the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost are one, yet three Persons, and one is not without the other.”[1d]

[2a] Mr. WAITE’s translation, p. 79.

[1b] BERNARD, Earl of TREVISAN:  A Treatise of the Philosopher’s Stone, 1683. (See Collectanea Chymica:  A Collection of Ten Several Treatises in Chymistry, 1684, p. 92.)

[2b] Ibid., p. 91.

[1c] EDWARD KELLY:  The Stone of the Philosophers. (See The Alchemical Writings of EDWARD KELLY, edited by A. E. WAITE, 1893, pp. 9 and 11 to 13.)

[2c] The Answer of BERNARDUS TREVISANUS, to the Epistle of Thomas of Bononira, Physician to K. Charles the 8th. (See JOHN FREDERICK HOUPREGHT:  Aurifontina Chymica, 1680, p. 208.)

[1d] One Hundred and Fourteen Experiments and Cures of the Famous Physitian THEOPHRASTUS PARACELSUS.  Whereunto is added . . . certain Secrets of ISAAC HOLLANDUS, concerning the Vegetall and Animall Work (1652), pp. 29 and 30.


When the alchemists described an element or principle as male or female, they meant what they said, as I have already intimated, to the extent, at least, of firmly believing that seed was produced by the two metallic sexes.  By their union metals were thought to be produced in the womb of the earth; and mines were shut in order that by the birth and growth of new metal the impoverished veins might be replenished.  In this way, too, was the magnum opus, the generation of the Philosopher’s Stone—in species gold, but purer than the purest—to be accomplished.  To conjoin that which Nature supplied, to foster the growth and development of that which was thereby produced; such was the task of the alchemist.  “For there are Vegetables,” says BERNARD of TREVISAN in his Answer to Thomas of Bononia, “but Sensitives more especially, which for the most part beget their like, by the Seeds of the Male and Female for the most part concurring and conmixt by copulation; which work of Nature the Philosophick Art imitates in the generation of gold.”[1]

[1] Op. cit., p. 216.


Mercury, as I have said, was commonly regarded as the seed of the metals, or as especially the female seed, there being two seeds, one the male, according to BERNARD, more ripe, perfect and active, the other the female, “more immature and in a sort passive[2] “. . . our Philosophick Art,” he says in another place, following a description of the generation of man, “ . . . is like this procreation of Man; for as in Mercury (of which Gold is by Nature generated in Mineral Vessels) a natural conjunction  

[2] Ibid., p. 217; cf. p. 236


is made of both the Seeds, Male and Female, so by our artifice, an artificial and like conjunction is made of Agents and Patients.”[1] “All teaching,” says KELLY, “that changes Mercury is false and vain, for this is the original sperm of metals, and its moisture must not be dried up, for otherwise it will not dissolve,”[2] and quotes ARNOLD (ob. c. 1310) to a similar effect.[3] One wonders how far the fact that human and animal seed is fluid influenced the alchemists in their choice of mercury, the only metal liquid at ordinary temperatures, as the seed of the metals.  There are, indeed, other good reasons for this choice, but that this idea played some part in it, and, at least, was present at the back of the alchemists’ minds, I have little doubt.

The most philosophic account of metallic seed is that, perhaps, of the mysterious adept “EIRENAEUS PHILALETHES,” who distinguishes between it and mercury in a rather interesting manner.  He writes:

“Seed is the means of generic propagation given to all perfect things here below; it is the perfection of each body; and anybody that has no seed must be regarded as imperfect.  Hence there can be no doubt that there is such a thing as metallic seed.... All metallic seed is the seed of gold; for gold is the intention of Nature in regard to all metals.  If the base metals are not gold, it is only through some accidental hindrance; they are-all potentially gold.  But, of course, this seed of gold is most easily obtainable from well-matured gold itself.... Remember that I am now speaking of metallic seed, and not of Mercury.... The seed of metals is hidden out of sight still more completely than that of animals; nevertheless, it is within the compass of our Art to extract it.  The seed of animals and vegetables is something separate, and may be cut out, or otherwise separately exhibited; but metallic seed is diffused throughout the metal, and contained in all its smallest parts; neither can it be discerned from its body: its extraction is therefore a task which may well tax the ingenuity of the most experienced philosopher; the virtues of the whole metal have to be intensified, so as to convert it into the sperm of our seed, which, by circulation, receives the virtues of superiors and inferiors, then next becomes wholly form, or heavenly virtue, which can communicate this to others related to it by homogeneity of matter.  . . . The place in which the seed resides is—approximately speaking—water; for, to speak properly and exactly, the seed is the smallest part of the metal, and is invisible; but as this invisible presence is diffused throughout the water of its kind, and exerts its virtue therein, nothing being visible to the eye but water, we are left to conclude from rational induction that this inward agent (which is, properly speaking, the seed) is really there.  Hence we call the whole of the water seed, just as we call the whole of the grain seed, though the germ of life is only a smallest particle of the grain.”[1b]

[1] The Answer of BERNARDUS TREVISANUS, etc. Op. cit. p. 218.

[2] op. cit., p. 22.

[3] Ibid., p. 16.

[1b] EIRENAEUS PHILALETHES:  The Metamorphosis of Metals.

(See The Hermetic Museum, vol. ii. pp. 238-240.)


To say that “PHILALETHES’” seed resembles the modern electron is, perhaps, to draw a rather fanciful analogy, since the electron is a very precise idea, the result of the mathematical interpretation of the results of exact experimentation.  But though it would be absurd to speak of this concept of the one seed of all metals as an anticipation of the electron, to apply the expression “metallic seed” to the electron, now that the concept of it has been reached, does not seem so absurd.

According to “PHILALETHES,” the extraction of the seed is a very difficult process, accomplishable, however, by the aid of mercury—the water homogeneous therewith.  Mercury, again, is the form of the seed thereby obtained.  He writes:  “When the sperm hidden in the body of gold is brought out by means of our Art, it appears under the form of Mercury, whence it is exalted into the quintessence which is first white, and then, by means of continuous coction, becomes red.”  And again:  “There is a womb into which the gold (if placed therein) will, of its own accord, emit its seed, until it is debilitated and dies, and by its death is renewed into a most glorious King, who thenceforward receives power to deliver all his brethren from the fear of death.”[1]

[1] EIRENAEUS PHILALETHES:  The Metamorphosis of Metals. (See The Hermetic Museum, vol. ii. pp. 241 and 244.)


The fifteenth-century alchemist THOMAS NORTON was peculiar in his views, inasmuch as he denied that metals have seed. He writes:  “Nature never multiplies anything, except in either one or the other of these two ways: either by decay, which we call putrefaction, or, in the case of animate creatures, by propagation.  In the case of metals there can be no propagation, though our Stone exhibits something like it.... Nothing can be multiplied by inward action unless it belong to the vegetable kingdom, or the family of sensitive creatures.  But the metals are elementary objects, and possess neither seed nor sensation.”[1]

[1] THOMAS NORTON:  The Ordinal of Alchemy. (See The Hermetic Museum, vol. ii. pp. 15 and 16.)


His theory of the origin of the metals is astral rather than phallic.  “The only efficient cause of metals,” he says, “is the mineral virtue, which is not found in every kind of earth, but only in certain places and chosen mines, into which the celestial sphere pours its rays in a straight direction year by year, and according to the arrangement of the metallic substance in these places, this or that metal is gradually formed.”[2]

[2] Ibid., pp. 15 and 16.


In view of the astrological symbolism of these metals, that gold should be masculine, silver feminine, does not surprise us, because the idea of the masculinity of the sun and the femininity of the moon is a bit of phallicism that still remains with us.  It was by the marriage of gold and silver that very many alchemists considered that the magnum opus was to be achieved.  Writes BERNARD of TREVISAN: “The subject of this admired Science [alchemy] is Sol and Luna, or rather Male and Female,  the Male is hot and dry, the Female cold and moyst.”  The aim of the work, he tells us, is the extraction of the spirit of gold, which alone can enter into bodies and tinge them. Both Sol and Luna are absolutely necessary, and “whoever . . .shall think that a Tincture can be made without these two Bodyes,. . . he proceedeth to the Practice like one that is blind.”[1]

[1] BERNARD, Earl of TREVISAN:  A Treatise, etc., Op. cit. pp. 83 and 87.


KELLY has teaching to the same effect, the Mercury of the Philosophers being for him the menstruum or medium wherein the copulation of Gold with Silver is to be accomplished.  Mercury, in fact, seems to have been everything and to have been capable of effecting everything in the eyes of the alchemists.  Concerning gold and silver, KELLY writes:

“Only one metal, viz. gold, is absolutely perfect and mature.  Hence it is called the perfect male body. . . Silver is less bounded by aqueous immaturity than the rest of the metals, though it may indeed be regarded as to a certain extent impure, still its water is already covered with the congealing vesture of its earth, and it thus tends to perfection.  This condition is the reason why silver is everywhere called by the Sages the perfect female body.”  And later he writes:

“In short, our whole Magistery consists in the union of the male and female, or active and passive, elements through the mediation of our metallic water and a proper degree of heat.  Now, the male and female are two metallic bodies, and this I will again prove by irrefragable quotations from the Sages.”  Some of the quotations will be given:

“Avicenna:  ‘Purify husband and wife separately, in order that they may unite more intimately; for if you do not purify them, they cannot love each other.  By conjunction of the two natures you get a clear and lucid nature, which, when it ascends, becomes bright and serviceable.’ . . . Senior:  ‘I, the Sun, am hot and dry, and thou, the Moon, are cold and moist; when we are wedded together in a closed chamber, I will gently steal away thy soul.’ . . . Rosinus:  ‘When the Sun, my brother, for the love of me (silver) pours his sperm (i.e. his solar fatness) into the chamber (i.e. my Lunar body), namely, when we become one in a strong and complete complexion and union, the child of our wedded love will be born.. . . ‘Rosary’: ‘The ferment of the Sun is the sperm of the man, the ferment of the Moon, the sperm of the woman.  Of both we get a chaste union and a true generation.’ . . . Aristotle:  ‘Take your beloved son, and wed him to his sister, his white sister, in equal marriage, and give them the cup of love, for it is a food which prompts to union.’ “[1a] KELLY, of course, accepts the traditional authorship of the works from which he quotes, though in many cases such authorship is doubtful, to say the least.  The alchemical works ascribed to ARISTOTLE (384-322 B.C.), for instance, are beyond question forgeries.  Indeed, the symbol of a union between brother and sister, here quoted, could hardly be held as acceptable to Greek thought, to which incest was the most abominable and unforgiveable sin.  It seems likelier that it originated with the Egyptians, to whom such unions were tolerable in fact.  The symbol is often met with in Latin alchemy.  MICHAEL MAIER (1568-1622) also says: “conjunge fratrem cum sorore et propina illis poculum amoris,”  the words forming a motto to a picture of a man and woman clasped in each other’s arms, to whom an older man offers a goblet.  This symbolic picture occurs in his Atalanta Fugiens, hoc est, Emblemata nova de Secretis Naturae Chymica, etc. (Oppenheim, 1617).  This work is an exceedingly curious one.  It consists of a number of carefully executed pictures, each accompanied by a motto, a verse of poetry set to music, with a prose text.  Many of the pictures are phallic in conception, and practically all of them are anthropomorphic.  Not only the primary function of sex, but especially its secondary one of lactation, is made use of.  The most curious of these emblematic pictures, perhaps, is one symbolizing the conjunction of gold and silver. It shows on the right a man and woman, representing the sun and moon, in the act of coition, standing up to the thighs in a lake.  On the left, on a hill above the lake, a woman (with the moon as halo) gives birth to a child.

A boy is coming out of the water towards her.  The verse informs us that: “The bath glows red at the conception of the boy, the air at his birth.” We learn also that “there is a stone, and yet there is not, which is the noble gift of God.  If God grants it, fortunate will be he who shall receive it.”[1]

[1a] EDWARD KELLY:  The Stone of the Philosophers, Op. cit., pp 13, 14, 33, 35, 36, 38-40, and 47.

[1] Op. Cit., p. 145


Concerning the nature of gold, there is a discussion in The Answer of BERNARDUS TREVISANUS to the Epistle of Thomas of Bononia, with which I shall close my consideration of the present aspect of the subject.  Its interest for us lies in the arguments which are used and held to be valid.  “Besides, you say that Gold, as most think, is nothing else than Quick-silver coagulated naturally by the force of Sulphur; yet so, that nothing of the Sulphur which generated the Gold, doth remain in the substance of the Gold:  as in an humane Embryo, when it is conceived in the Womb, there remains nothing of the Father’s Seed, according to Aristotle’s opinion, but the Seed of the Man doth only coagulate the menstrual blood of the Woman:  in the same manner you say, that after Quick-silver is so coagulated, the form of Gold is perfected in it, by virtue of the Heavenly Bodies, and especially of the Sun.”[1]  BERNARD, however, decides against this view, holding that gold contains both mercury and sulphur, for “we must not imagine, according to their mistake who say, that the Male Agent himself approaches the Female in the coagulation, and departs afterwards; because, as is known in every generation, the conception is active and passive: Both the active and the passive, that is, all the four Elements, must always abide together, otherwise there would be no mixture, and the hope of generating an off-spring would be extinguished.”[2]

[1] Op. cit., pp. 206 and 207.

[2] Ibid., pp. 212 and 213.


In conclusion, I wish to say something of the role of sex in spiritual alchemy.  But in doing this I am venturing outside the original field of inquiry of this essay and making a by no means necessary addition to my thesis; and I am anxious that what follows should be understood as such, so that no confusion as to the issues may arise.

In the great alchemical collection of J. J. MANGET, there is a curious work (originally published in 1677), entitled Mutus Liber, which consists entirely of plates, without letterpress.  Its interest for us in our present concern is that the alchemist, from the commencement of the work until its achievement, is shown working in conjunction with a woman.  We are reminded of NICOLAS FLAMEL (1330-1418), who is reputed to have achieved the magnum opus together with his wife PERNELLE, as well as of the many other women workers in the Art of whom we read.  It would be of interest in this connection to know exactly what association of ideas was present in the mind of MICHAEL MAIER when he commanded the alchemist: “Perform a work of women on the molten white lead, that is, cook,”[1a] and illustrated his behest with a picture of a pregnant woman watching a fire over which is suspended a cauldron and on which are three jars.  There is a cat in the background, and a tub containing two fish in the foreground, the whole forming a very curious collection of emblems.  Mr. WAITE, who has dealt with some of these matters, luminously, though briefly, says:  “The evidences with which we have been dealing concern solely the physical work of alchemy and there is nothing of its mystical aspects.  The Mutus Liber is undoubtedly on the literal side of metallic transmutation; the memorials of Nicholas Flamel are also on that side,” etc.  He adds, however, that “It is on record that an unknown master testified to his possession of the mystery, but he added that he had not proceeded to the work because he had failed to meet with an elect woman who was necessary thereto”; and proceeds to say:  “I suppose that the statement will awaken in most minds only a vague sense of wonder, and I can merely indicate in a few general words that which I see behind it. Those Hermetic texts which bear a spiritual interpretation and are as if a record of spiritual experience present, like the literature of physical alchemy, the following aspects of symbolism:  (a) the marriage of sun and moon; (b) of a mystical king and queen; (c) an union between natures which are one at the root but diverse in manifestation; (d) a transmutation which follows this union and an abiding glory therein.  It is ever a conjunction between male and female in a mystical sense; it is ever the bringing together by art of things separated by an imperfect order of things; it is ever the perfection of natures by means of this conjunction.  But if the mystical work of alchemy is an inward work in consciousness, then the union between male and female is an union in consciousness; and if we remember the traditions of a state when male and female had not as yet been divided, it may dawn upon us that the higher alchemy was a practice for the return into this ineffable mode of being.  The traditional doctrine is set forth in the Zohar and it is found in writers like Jacob Boehme; it is intimated in the early chapters of Genesis and, according to an apocryphal saying of Christ, the kingdom of heaven will be manifested when two shall be as one, or when that state has been once again attained.  In the light of this construction we can understand why the mystical adept went in search of a wise woman with whom the work could be performed; but few there be that find her, and he confessed to his own failure.  The part of woman in the physical practice of alchemy is like a reflection at a distance of this more exalted process, and there is evidence that those who worked in metals and sought for a material elixir knew that there were other and greater aspects of the Hermetic mystery.”[1b]

[1a] MICHAEL MATER:  Atalanta Fugiens (1617), p. 97.

[1b] A E. WAITE:  “Woman and the Hermetic Mystery,” The Occult Review (June 1912), vol. xv. pp. 325 and 326.


So far Mr. WAITE, whose impressive words I have quoted at some length; and he has given us a fuller account of the theory as found in the Zohar in his valuable work on The Secret Doctrine in Israel (1913). The Zohar regards marriage and the performance of the sexual function in marriage as of supreme importance, and this not merely because marriage symbolizes a divine union, unless that expression is held to include all that logically follows from the fact, but because, as it seems, the sexual act in marriage may, in fact, become a ritual of transcendental magic.

At least three varieties of opinion can be traced from the view of sex we have under consideration, as to the nature of the perfect man, and hence of the most adequate symbol for transmutation.  According to one, and this appears to have been JACOB BOEHME’S view, the perfect man is conceived of as non-sexual, the male and female elements united in him having, as it were, neutralized each other.  According to another, he is pictured as a hermaphroditic being, a concept we frequently come across in alchemical literature.  It plays a prominent part in MAIER’S book Atalanta Fugiens, to which reference has already been made.  MAIER’S hermaphrodite has two heads, one male, one female, but only one body, one pair of arms, and one pair of legs.  The two sexual organs, which are placed side by side, are delineated in the illustrations with considerable care, showing the importance MAIER attached to the idea.  This concept seems to me not only crude, but unnatural and repellent.  But it may be said of both the opinions I have mentioned, that they confuse between union and identity.  It is the old mistake, with respect to a lesser goal, of those who hope for absorption in the Divine Nature and consequent loss of personality.  It seems to be forgotten that a certain degree of distinction is necessary to the joy of union.  “Distinction” and “separation,” it should be remembered, have different connotations.  If the supreme joy is that of self-sacrifice, then the self must be such that it can be continually sacrificed, else the joy is a purely transitory one, or rather, is destroyed at the moment of its consummation.  Hence, though sacrificed, the self must still remain itself.

The third view of perfection, to which these remarks naturally lead, is that which sees it typified in marriage.  The mystic-philosopher SWEDENBORG has some exceedingly suggestive things to say on the matter in his extraordinary work on Conjugial Love, which, curiously enough, seem largely to have escaped the notice of students of these high mysteries.

SWEDENBORG’S heaven is a sexual heaven, because for him sex is primarily a spiritual fact, and only secondarily, and because of what it is primarily, a physical fact; and salvation is hardly possible, according to him, apart from a genuine marriage (whether achieved here or hereafter).  Man and woman are considered as complementary beings, and it is only through the union of one man with one woman that the perfect angel results.  The altruistic tendency of such a theory as contrasted with the egotism of one in which perfection is regarded as obtainable by each personality of itself alone, is a point worth emphasizing.  As to the nature of this union, it is, to use SWEDENBORG’S own terms, a conjunction of the will of the wife with the understanding of the man, and reciprocally of the understanding of the man with the will of the wife.  It is thus a manifestation of that fundamental marriage between the good and the true which is at the root of all existence; and it is because of this fundamental marriage that all men and women are born into the desire to complete themselves by conjunction.  The symbol of sexual intercourse is a legitimate one to use in speaking of this heavenly union; indeed, we may describe the highest bliss attainable by the soul, or conceivable by the mind, as a spiritual orgasm.  Into conjugal love “are collected,” says SWEDENBORG, “all the blessednesses, blissfulnesses, delightsomenesses, pleasantnesses, and pleasures, which could possibly be conferred upon man by the Lord the Creator.”[1] In another place he writes: “Married partners [in heaven] enjoy similar intercourse with each other as in the world, but more delightful and blessed; yet without prolification, for which, or in place of which, they have spiritual prolification, which is that of love and wisdom.”  “The reason,” he adds, “why the intercourse then is more delightful and blessed is, that when conjugial love becomes of the spirit, it becomes more interior and pure, and consequently more perceptible; and every delightsomeness grows according to the perception, and grows even until its blessedness is discernible in its delightsomeness.”[1b] Such love, however, he says, is rarely to be found on earth.

[1] EMANUEL SWEDENBORG:  The Delights of Wisdom relating to Conjugial Love (trans. by A. H. SEARLE, 1891), SE 68.

[1b] EMANUEL SWEDENBORG:  Op. cit., SE 51.


A learned Japanese speaks with approval of Idealism as a “dream where sensuousness and spirituality find themselves to be blood brothers or sisters.”[2] It is a statement which involves either the grossest and most dangerous error, or the profoundest truth, according to the understanding of it. Woman is a road whereby man travels either to God or the devil. The problem of sex is a far deeper problem than appears at first sight, involving mysteries both the direst and most holy.  It is by no means a fantastic hypothesis that the inmost mystery of what a certain school of mystics calls “the Secret Tradition” was a sexual one.  At any rate, the fact that some of those, at least, to whom alchemy connoted a mystical process, were alive to the profound spiritual significance of sex, renders of double interest what they have to intimate of the achievement of the Magnum Opus in man.

[2] YONE NOGUCHI:  The Spirit of Japanese Art (1915), p. 37.


This is taken from Bygone Beliefs.





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