It might help to know that alchemy is an encryption, not a direct linear code. So it is based in relativity, and one symbol does not absolutely mean one thing. As an index yes, certain symbols are employed that have a stated meaning… but when put in use they signify dynamics rather than coordinates. The encryption works by using analogues of nature, and some traditional lore such as constellations, but is activated individually by the fore-content of the reader’s mind, creating a unique, imagination fueled encryption whereby two people who have the same intent will understand each other, but should two have different purposes for the encryption, the contents will remain mysterious between them, or interpreted only to the extent that the reader is familiar with themselves.
Using and reading alchemical encryption starts with a basic primer of deconstruction. Of behaviors – cardinal, mutable and fixed. Of four elements, simple and philosophic. That’s 3×4 to start. Add to this metals, signs, planets, and stages of process, and the variables run into the thousands. Not bad, and yet to the creative, visual brain it is handled pleasantly, as a tapestry. While the deconstruction is required to read and write the encryption (and this may give insight into other uses of hieroglyphs, at their height, from the land that gave us the alchemical code) one develops a relationship to a certain deconstructive philosophy, that lends towards analogies of refinement, separation, combination, finding the best in things, and dealing with the daily proliferation of darkness.
So the encryption has been used to many purposes, which makes it unique and less pedagogic than many traditions, and more akin to natural philosophy, than the maxims of a historic figure. The greatest error is to assume one true purpose at work every time an alchemist sets down to use the encryption, to send a message through time, (or to themselves, given that many treatises were private notebooks, showing an individual working out questions and theories, and using the encryption as shorthand for themselves alone). Newton made this error, until at last he did not, and realizing that he worked to separate out the chemical from the spiritual, introduced him directly to nature, and to his own nature as well. After which he created a new symbol language, this time a linear code and not a language encryption, called calculus. He was no longer living in an intellectually dark place and period where encryption of science was necessary. On the contrary, the clarity of his new language was vital to moving everyone further along.
Many alchemical treatises are devoted to receipts (recipes) and other secret lab notes, describing actual and proto-science experiments… but not remotely all of them. But to read a scientific treatise when your pursuit is spiritual, is to achieve only confusion until you grasp this. The fascinating lesson here, is that with the mercurial nature of the encryption Cleopatra devised, one devoted to philosophy alone may yet learn and appreciate new things, even by applying themselves to the reading of a strictly chemical treatise… reflecting well, above as to below, that much can be learned from nature, whether directly observed in the outer world, or when it is distilled and reflected in works on paper by another human being.
So it is a misunderstanding to think of alchemy as one thing, with one truth and code, because any reading is a mixture, always, of one part nature, and one part the nature of the reader. But when the nature of the one that wrote the treatise, and that of the reader, are in accord, are of like nature, the meaning becomes clear to the reader instantly. As though by an attraction of magnetism, they click together easily without difficulty, and the student is rewarded for continually looking elsewhere until their own nature is revealed to them, through likeness.
To use another famous example, Jung, who had the benefit of a broader collection of treatises and artworks than many that came before him, was convinced of a single, higher code that unified all the encryptions. A very common impression. And in part he was correct, that part being the philosophy of subjective understanding, inherent in the imagination, and he attributed that as a form of early psychology. But at the same time, he also projected back into them all a universality that does not allow for the differing uses for which alchemy has been applied. Being in this situation, where one code is assumed for all expressions, one is forced into the position of saying it is due to ‘higher and lower’ understanding, to explain why one treatise is sensible and another has none at all for the reader. Missing the personal variable that completely makes the encryption, which changes from writer to writer, reader to reader… without understanding that author and reader must first already be entangled… an uncomprehending reader is left to assume that an author missed the point, or gained it… and in truth this is only a measure of how well you understand them in advance, and further, agree. This is a common error of interpretation through alchemy’s history, but his intellect did derive many observations about the contribution to likeness, and individuality, just the same, from a very close understanding of the spiritual branches of its usage, that brought interesting modern insights into the life of the mind.
Modern scientists carefully refer to the subject, knowing what he did not seem to accept… that some treatises contained reproducible, laboratory information while others clearly did not. This is what led Newton out of his metaphysical forest, to which his heart ever remained, but resolved the suffering he endured from paradox by ending it. Discovering different natures in different authors, extracting the pure, scientific language that he was looking for, from the many other kinds of tree in that forest he had long wandered in. He had found his own nature, and by doing so, the natures of others that matched his operation. So modern scientists carefully state with good reason, that in some cases, alchemists were conducting true proto-scientific research, and often the encryption of alchemy served them well, to preserve their safety, their lives, or their trade secrets. Indeed, even today some risk and hostility remains, and paradox continues to plague human reason, as many climate and environmental scientists are losing their jobs, as fortune’s winds turn to favor profit over international cooperation.
The only thing to add to this then, is to say that those who once used alchemy to conceal their studies of the physical chemistry of nature, no longer require alchemy’s form of secrecy, and to follow their footsteps and understand the whole of alchemy better, one need only purchase a book or register at their local college for any class in science. This has been set free, and no longer needs alchemy, but the student of alchemy has always needed science.
Meanwhile, there are other purposes that alchemy was used for as encryption, that still benefit from the dynamic of the imagination by which it works so effectively. It is well said that it does not need protecting… it protects itself. I have read treatises that concealed baldly political statements, marital recommendations especially for those that had passions that made them vulnerable to the poorer spirits of the day, or to vent grievances against social ills. Again, and the encryption is miraculous for it, and beautiful, if its workings were understood it explains why it is called Art… and not some other thing… for by the faculty of art it is used even today… When you read a treatise that does not match what you are hoping to read, if you are not reading for its subject, by your own nature or purpose…. you will not find it readable, unless it is for you, by one that shares your nature or purpose! And so, historical alchemy has its series of symbols that are easily named, but humans have long used alchemy in so many countless other configurations and arrays of symbols, and really anything will do to carry the function… that the codex of Cleopatra is but one color in a wide spectrum! Understand this and much mystery will fall away.
And yet I have not touched on the true secret, and I never will. For even this world is not ready for it, and for this reason, the great work continues. Devoted to the whole of nature, devoted to the good, and the masterpiece of humanity, you cannot go wrong, whatever your understanding.
For all this, spiritual alchemy is enjoying a rising popularity, as it is amenable to climbing walls and bridging torrents, and does not discriminate but works through affinity alone. It still has validity in the quest for wisdom and an understanding of nature, because of the dynamics by which it works. The deconstructive language it uses, drawn from nature’s behaviors, is much like learning to mix colors of paint to match what the eye sees and the light reveals, or learning to place fingers on the strings of an instrument, in which measure assigns notes, and the air carries waves that form harmony and disharmony… this as good as any introduces the positive use of deconstruction, which is to dissolve complexes anywhere, in anything, and thereby separate out the course material from the gold, and from the philosopher’s stone.
To return to an earlier example, that of a psychologist seeking to make universal what is truly many separate parts compounded… when one goes to a school that promises to teach alchemy, or devotes themselves to a guide, they are essentially matching their nature, to a degree, to that of a teacher in order to study. And in this way, their understanding of the teacher’s use of encryption will be perfect. But this does not equate, not remotely, with a perfect understanding of alchemy. No, it is two individuals holding the same key to encryption, and this only. And so, as a mild warning, it should be taken to account that one’s nature may not match that of the teacher, and one may grow apart from their understanding as one grows closer to their own nature. This need not be feared, as the individual who grows in understanding of these operations, will eventually be led to their own nature, even if they are drawn away from their teacher’s intent, and the symbols themselves will come to resemble the student, more than their initial teacher, as their understanding increases. And this may well lead to new teachers, or to nature in completion, indeed, it always does.
Sometimes, the school or teacher becomes so self assured by witnessing the matching encryption among students, that they come to believe they have obtained a perfect understanding of alchemy, and they begin to interpret their possession to be the whole secret of alchemy itself, and becomes hostile to its own members, or restricts their use of the language for their own purposes. Believing they possess the secret, they choose to become the enforcer of its secrecy, and here we have them becoming lost in the reality of symbols, and so straying from the reality of the operation, forgetting what is meant when the wise say that it protects itself. All that is accomplished is to preserve the use of but one key of encryption, between student and teacher; but in the natural world, in the long run, it does not do much about differing natures, and affinity, regardless of how closely one key matches one lock. And in this way the operation and the whole of nature is preserved against human possessiveness.
Summary: Alchemy is an encryption, not a code with one true meaning for all its parts and narrative. It works visually, by interacting with imagination. It works by using a visual language of deconstruction, which improves understanding of many things outside one’s personal experience. As an encryption, it has been used in history to express many things, from science, to politics, to spirituality, to psychology. As an encryption, your own understanding will cause you to grasp a treatise that was written in the same spirit as that which you seek, and others will be opaque and insensible either in part or completely, though with practice, you will derive something even from treatises not written to match your purpose at all. Finally, that which is meant to be secret, remains secret. Even your best efforts to expose it will collapse on themselves, or you are simply in error in the first place. The way in which this works, the second ‘miracle’ besides the way the encryption works between any two individuals, is called the ‘riddle of sphinx’.
Cardinal – Referring literally to the four directions. Directed, pointed, branched. A behavior of creation, and it happens everywhere, in all directions. Anything is possible. Have faith that all things intersect.
Mutable – As in mutation and adaptable. Changing form, transformation. Metallic liquid. Think of water, which like many elements changes between ice, liquid, and clouds. A heart may change, or even melt, especially through charity.
Fixed – Not only crystal, as with salt, crystallized… but also predictable, reliable, numeric like the fixed stars. Hope as an anchor, the anchor fixes a ship so it remains in place on a sea, or gives it some stability during a storm when tethered to its weight, dropped into calmer depths. And also distilled, as with salt water left to dry in the sun, as hope drawn up in difficult times.