Notes on alchemy

12 11 2009

Mercury was, for them, the seminal essence of a god who (pro-)creates the universe sexually; indeed the origin myth of mercury tells us that quicksilver first arose when Siva spilled his seed at the end of a long bout of lovemaking with his consort, the goddess Parvati. This seed once spilled, became polluted through its contact with the earth. The alchemist’s craft therefore consists of returning mercury, through a series of chemical reactions of incredible complexity, to its original pristine state. Once he has perfected it in the laboratory, the alchemist may then ingest this mercury, which then transforms him into an immortal human, a “second Siva”.

-David Gordon White, “The Ocean of Mercury: An Eleventh-Century Alchemical Text” in Religions of India in Practice

One of the old falsehoods that many Christian apologists like to use is how “anti-incarnational” pagan systems are and how beliefs in things such as the transmigration of souls are completely alien to the “Judeo-Christian” tradition. Non-Christian fatalism despises the body as a vehicle of punishment by cosmic fate. I will not argue that there is not something to these generalizations. However, it is to be noted that there was a tradition in rabbinic Judaism of reincarnation. Aside from that, however, late Greek theurgy and texts such as the one above show that the pagan approach to matter was not as “fatalist” and “anti-incarnational” as many Christian philosophers make it out to be. Here is a direct quote from that alchemical text:

Eternal youth, immortality of the body, and the attainment of an identity of nature with Siva- that is, liberation in the body- is difficult even for the gods to attain. The liberation that occurs when one drops dead, that liberation is worthless. For in that case, a donkey would also be liberated when he dropped dead.

In this text, it is mercury, the semen of Siva, that cures and brings back life to the dead. Such soteriology is not based on transcendence of the mortal frame, but uses it to go beyond mortality. The Eucharistic tones of such practices no doubt ring in the ears of any good Catholic. Indeed, alchemy was one of the most Christian of the magical arts, as I have written before. Perhaps it is the ultimate prisca theologia: the idea of the consumption of the divine to become divine, of transformation into that which is deathless. As the text affirms:

When swooning, mercury, like the breath, carries off disease; when killed, it raises the dead; when bound, it affords the power of flight.


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