Is There Any Connection Between Alchemy and Freemasonry?
This question seems to be begging for a “yes” answer, and so it is, but it must be a very qualified ”yes.” Freemasonry is related or associated with Alchemy in the same manner that it is with Astrology, and many other so-called “occult” topics. Their relationship with the Craft is not causative, but associative and, in the majority of cases, only coincidentally so. They coexisted. Freemasonry emerged from a an esoteric soup that existed in the late Renaissance, on the cusp of the period known as the Baroque, during which empiricism became the new norm for learning about the natural world, as opposed to tradition, imitation and a reliance on ”revealed” truth. In the plastic arts, this meant the direct observation of nature instead of copying classical works blindly. For artists with a neo-Platonic orientation, this meant reflecting on an inner idea or image of ideal forms, eternal in the mind of God, to put it one way. The direct observation of nature necessitated the study of anatomy, mechanics, geometry and optics (there could have been no perspective drawing without these latter two sciences). Even the neo-Platonist had to rely on thousands of inferences drawn from direct observation in order to draw, say, the human figure without a model in front of him.
On another front, Philosophy emerged from being a tool of Christian apologetics using Aristotle and Plato to one that was becoming fiercely independent and more reliant on direct reasoning and questioning — beginning with doubt, not faith. In this cultural and intellectual context, Freemasonry did not develop from any particular line or tradition — other than one: its descent or evolution, from a trade guild beginning in the very late 1500s and all during the 1600s, into a gentleman’s intellectual society with a speculative orientation, instead of an operative one. Along its path to emergence as what Freemasonry is today, its members have been involved with or at least interested in, all the emerging schools of thought in society around them, as well as those of the past.
Where Did Alchemy Come From and How – or Why – Is It Related to Freemasonry?
Alchemy is a word of Arabic origin and its etymology is a good place to begin searching for where it emerged as well as what it was about. The first syllable -al- is the Arabic equivalent of the English definite article “the.” It was really a separate word which English and other European languages combined, in their ignorance of Arabic, into one. The English transcription of the rest of the Arabic phrase is quimia. and is directly where English derives the word Chemistry from. Modern Chemistry emerged – or better yet – began to diverge from Alchemy as its own practitioners became increasingly aware that the models of the material universe upon which alchemical operations presumed to operate were not accurate. There were not just four elements, but many, many more. At the same time, a similar rift was emerging between Astrology and Astronomy, as the geocentric model gave way to the complex heliocentric one which also demolished Astrology by observing that the celestial bodies on the starry, apparent canopy of heaven, were not at the same distance from one another nor ”assigned” into related clusters (i.e., constellations).
One of the men associated with the development of modern science, was Francis Bacon. In 1626, he published The New Atlantis – an outline for future inquiry that makes one think of Jules Verne. Bacon was a precursor of and inspiration to the men who a generation later would found the Royal Society, whose motto is “Question Everything,” A charge that also caused many to study Alchemy. Among the members of the Royal Society were men known to be Freemasons, such as Elias Ashmole (the first to “self-identify”as a Freemason in a personal journal entry in the mid 1600s), the architect Christopher Wren – often listed as a Grand Master of the Freemasons, but in the period prior to the formation of the Grand Lodge of England in 1717. Sir Isaac Newton was also a member of the charter members of the Royal Society, and although we have no evidence of his membership in anything we would call masonic, he was closely associated with the very men who clearly were shaping an organization we now call Freemasonry out of the esoteric and intellectual soup I mentioned above, oddly doing so in guilds of Operative Masons that were consequentially transforming into Speculative organizations composed of gentlemen and scholars. Newton was also known to cast horoscopes for “extra money” as we would call it. His discovery of the mathematical formula to explain gravity was one he himself at first contemplated as mystic and as alchemy, not as scientific: it proved the existence of an “invisible force exerted from a distance.” Francis Bacon’s The New Atlantis was a piece of forward-looking utopian literature, but one that many Freemasons might hastily, but not without some truth, declare as the starting point of Freemasonry, due to its use of Salomon (a permutation of Solomon) as a model of a society of inquiring minds, hidden from the world. A similar, and closely related movement, or at least powerful idea, had set European intellectual, religious and political circles aflame a decade of so earlier with the Rosicrucian scare.
One cannot even compare the state of European intellectual inquiry in its medieval period with that of the Muslim world and their study of the natural world, hand in hand with Astrology and Alchemy. Europeans had little beyond traditional herbal medicine, “informed” by Astrology. The Muslim world too had many superstitions and inaccuracies, but proceeded along lines of inquiry that more closely resembled what Western empirical science would become. Its practitioners were men of “medicine” and philosophy, such as Averoes in the Iberian peninsula (modern Spain and Portugal). Alongside the Muslims and Christians, the Jewish intellectuals were also on a par with the Muslims, but they did not have any political kingdom. The great Jewish “doctor” — who would have been knowledgeable in “alchemy” was Maimonaides. Among the Jews, works such as the Zohar, associated with the Kabbala, also were intertwined or informed, their pursuit of what we would call scientific truth as well as metaphysical and mystic truth.
The Muslim realms on the Iberian peninsula were second to none in the entire Muslim world, from India to Morocco. Even some relatively enlightened Christian kings, in particular, Alphonse X, The Wise, during the 1200s, attracted scholars from all over the known world to attempt to elevate human knowledge. His son was a warrior and ruined that enterprise, otherwise the Renaissance might have started two centuries earlier, and in Spain, not Italy.
What Are the Major Tenants and Goals of Alchemy?
The Arabic “chemists” were, as deeply devout Muslims and fierce monotheists, were convinced of the ultimate unity of all things since all things came from The One God. They sought, and found this unity through Geometry (e.g., phi, the ratio found in all living things, crystals, and even — later found — in the arms of galaxies). Thus, the unity and the operations of the external universe which we operate in and can operate upon evinced a hidden harmony and relationship with the inner or invisible universe, where God resides. The reasoning went that if you do something in the outter world, it has consequences on the world that we cannot see. Hence: As Above, So Below, the major tenant of Alchemy – and ultimately of homeopathic medicine! This idea is expressed in The Emerald Tablet or the Tabula Smaragdina, ultimately attributed to the figure of Hermes Trismegistus, now known to be a fictitious, composite figure associated with Thoth, or even with Seth, depending on one’s sources. Ten surviving Hermetic Books attributed to him escaped the destruction of Byzantium in 1453 and were translated in Florence by Marcilio Ficino, in the following decade. They were also translated into English by [the Freemason] Sir Walter Scott, in the nineteenth century.
Hence, alongside physical manipulation of the universe, the basest trick of which would be the famous goal of trasmuting base metals, such as lead, into gold, the real goal of the Alchemist was inner transformation. The idea of “the kingdom of heaven being within” is one that resonates with the attitude and worldview of the Alchemist – and ït is not unique to the Western World. China also has a strong alchemical tradition deeply embedded in the I-Ching or Book of Changes, whose language, like that of the Western Alchemist, is highly symbolic and seemingly sexually charged.
How Did Alchemy Impact Mainstream Thought in Civilization?
On the one hand, and most universally important: Alchemy impacted the world giving rise to modern chemistry. However, its most long lasting impact is still felt among those who may merely study, as opposed to practice alchemy: that of inner transformation. The model or allegory of the transmutation of lead into gold is symbolized by the seven metals that are associated in retrograde fashion with the seven days of the week, beginning with Saturday – lead- and ending with Sunday, associated with gold. This symbolism is extremely ancient; the seven colors associated with the seven metals were also painted on the seven successive levels of of the Babylonian Ziggurats and later on the seven rungs of the ladder of the Mithraic tradition. These similarities, no matter how perfect, do not constitute evidence of one continous mystic stream, but rather the way in which symbols ebb and flow through time and civilization, often, quite often, preserving their meanings because they are capable of transcending language.
How Did Masonic Traditions Evolve Out of Alchemy?
Again, the question is begging for a “yes” answer by presuming that are are specific contributions that might have been handed over from one tradition to the other… so that “yes” answer is qualified by a strong dose of intellectual caution – along with an encouragement to pursue deeper sources than this very brief primer.
Freemasonry’s past is not explained nor should it be understood as consisting of one continual stream from antiquity to the present. It is more like a rope, consisting of many fibers of various lengths, some of which touch each other by overlapping or being intertwined, but none of which touch all the other the fibers along its whole length. Like Alchemy, Freemasonry is about the development, or at least the salient features of life’s journey from cradle to grave. Its members believe in the influence of our actions on our inner life and on the world, and, depending on one’s theology, how those actions may impact our life beyond the grave.
In terms of symbolism, in some Masonic traditions, there is an acronym used that corresponds to the internal work of the alchemist and that of a Mason: V:.I:.T:.R:.I:.O:.L:., standing for the Latin phrase Visita Interiora Terrae Rectificando Invenies Occultum Lapidem, which translates as Visit the Inner parts of the Earth, by Rectifying you will Find the Hidden Stone. One can hear the words, but like a parable, its meaning takes thought: We are made of Earth. By digging within ourselves, and sifting the good from the bad, the meaningful from the unmeaningful, we can find the hidden stone – much like the builder breaks off the rough edges of a stone to fit it for the builder’s use.
How Do Freemasons Benefit From Studying and Understanding Alchemy?
Anyone will benefit from studying the ideas and models of the inner life as expressed in Alchemy, although, as the Art Historian Rupert St. Martin calls it in his study, simply entitled Baroque, the general public will probably find the “emblematical cast of mind” difficult because modern people, particularly in the USA, just don’t think that way anymore. However, thinking Freemasons do. And they will benefit from such studies because they resonate with the worldviews and emblematical modes of thought that were in vogue in that esoteric soup when both Alchemy and nascient Freemasonry were coexisting among intellectual circles in Europe.
There are many websites about Alchemy — in all cases, caveat emptor. Michigan State University has an online journal, refereed, called Esoterica, a good place to start. In addition, I recommend Alexander Roob’s reference work Alchemy & Mysticism.