Cherry Gilchrist’s book on the history and interpretation of alchemy has remained a classic since its first publication in 1984. Alchemy, the Great Work: A History and Evaluation of the Western Hermetic Tradition was published in a new edition by Weiser Books, with an introduction by Mark Booth, in June 2015.
Her book on alchemy as a system of self-development, drawing on the Twelve Gates of George Ripley and alchemical imagery, is Everyday Alchemy, published by Rider in 2002.
She has appeared on radio and TV on various occasions to discuss alchemy, most notably on ‘Stephen Hawking’s World’, in an episode filmed in Owlpen Manor in Gloucestershire, UK, home and haunt of an eighteenth-century alchemist.
Cherry also draws on her knowledge of the Tree of Life, astrology, and divination in her writings on alchemy. She has studied these subjects since her student days at Cambridge, from which she graduated with a degree in English literature and anthropology. Following the line of oral traditions and wisdom, she has also written about Russian folk traditions, ancestry, personal life stories, and myths and legends from different cultures. Cherry is at present writing a book on the traditional Tarot trumps for Quest Books. For details of her work, see www.cherrygilchrist.co.uk.
Other interests include singing early music, and travel. Places visited such as Easter Island, Siberia, and the Silk Road have given her inspiration for her books, and insight into ancient cultures.
Cherry’s own philosophy is that the Hermetic work can be passed down through a genuine line of teaching, and that it needs to find different forms in new generations. She was a founder member of Saros, the Foundation for the Perpetuation of Knowledge, an organisation headquartered in the UK which took on those aims.
Cherry lives in Exeter, UK, with her husband, artist Robert Lee-Wade.
Richard Smoley (RS): Maybe we could start by a brief definition of what you think alchemy is.
Cherry Gilchrist (CG): Alchemy is about transformation. In its most basic definition, it’s the transformation of base material or metal into gold. However, that is too simplistic, according to the ways in which the tradition of alchemy has been practised and understood over hundreds, even thousands, of years. In a way, alchemy is about the process of creation itself: how does one thing become another? How do things change state? How can we change our state of being? And can we, as so-called conscious human beings, learn how to make those changes? So another way to put it is that alchemy is a way of using the life force to effect transformation, whether that’s on the physical, external level, or in a spiritual way. I hesitate to say that the alchemical process can work either on the material or on the spiritual level, because in one sense, in alchemy, they are completely integrated!
RS: Most people would say that alchemy is just an old and outmoded form of chemistry. Why should we interest ourselves in it today?
CG: I think this old chestnut comes up because of the way historians have dealt with alchemy in the last hundred years or so. That has formed the belief we’re fed. I use the word ‘belief’ because I really do think our perception of what is true and false, what is reliably scientific and what is non-scientific and therefore superstitious – in some people’s eyes – is moulded by the way history has been interpreted. Anyone who reads my book will, I hope, have that view changed. The evidence from the history of alchemy alone, when explored more fully, shows just how seriously it was taken, and how it can’t be just cast on the scrapheap as a well-meaning but deluded forerunner to enlightened science. Isaac Newton himself was an alchemist, and funnily enough, scholars have recently begun to pay a lot more attention to that fact.
I myself make no claims that alchemy is effective when judged by the standards of modern chemistry. I am not a scientist, and clearly we’re not going to go backwards in time and revert to what now seem very primitive methods for working with chemical elements. I think the point is more that alchemy has had many applications over its history, and that the way it led into chemistry as we know it was just one feature of the whole spectrum of alchemy. Maybe it still has more to teach us about how to work with physical materials, though – and with the whole area of interaction of mind and materials opening up in science, it could offer views and approaches which breathe new life into scientific development. But whatever the case, alchemy still has much to impart in terms of psychology, spiritual development, and our relationship with the natural world. In one form or another, it’s still a path to knowledge.
RS: Could you say a little bit about the origins of alchemy?
CG: Well, again here we are somewhat constrained by the degree of research and scholarship available to us. This suggests, to put it briefly, that the metal workers of ancient Egypt may have kicked off the interest in the transformation of one material or metal into another. And that this came to early fruition in the Hellenistic, Alexandrian period, which began about three hundred years before the Christian era. But I suspect that if a few scholars really dig into the roots of alchemy, they will find a much wider realm of alchemical endeavour, particularly if they broaden the definition of alchemy. In the Far East, alchemy also had ancient origins, but the focus there was more on how the human body worked. Just as shamanism has extended its definition in recent years – it was once considered to be exclusively Siberian, and now is traced almost worldwide – so alchemy may have a broader historical lineage than we at present suspect. Perhaps this is beginning to happen. It has been suggested for instance that the discovery of charcoal burning is linked to a historical peasant tradition of alchemy as practiced by the Basques, one of the most ancient peoples of Europe.
RS: Some writers describe alchemy as a physical process – actual working with minerals and plants and so on. Others see it as a psychological process. How do you see these different roles? Are they both valid?
CG: I used to hold firmly to the view that true alchemy must be applied across the levels, having both a physical and a mental component. Its magic, if I can call it that, is that it is neither purely material or purely spiritual. However, I’ve come to see this in a different light, and I think now that alchemy has an incredible spectrum of application, and can be applied at different levels of creation. The most extreme examples of selective application are perhaps the old-fangled ‘puffers’ who spent all their time trying to work out how to concoct gold and get rich. And also the purely spiritual alchemists among whom we can count Jacob Boehme. I consider now that both of these are valid in their way; they are both participating in an alchemical process. However, if the get-rich-quick alchemists ignored the bigger scale of the creative process and limited their goals to financial reward, they were likely to end up dirty, disappointed, and broke! Alchemical laboratories weren’t pretty, fragrant places to work in.
The other way round, I suppose, can have more significant results – I mean alchemy as a metaphor for spiritual development does work. But perhaps it will peter out as a way forward, or be very particular to one person, because it is treated then as a set of symbols which could be replaced by another set at will. If you sever the connection between material process and our sense of creation as a whole, or between spiritual and material understanding, then that approach to alchemy can’t flourish for long. There’s much to ponder on here, and I doubt that my own views will ever reach a complete and final conclusion!
RS: Your book title links alchemy with the Hermetic tradition. How does that work? Does Hermes come into this too?
CG: Hermes is very important in alchemy, as a kind of patron saint – except that he isn’t very saintly! He’s more of a shape-shifter or trickster figure. Hermes and Mercury meld to a certain extent, so that we have the guiding spirit of Hermes who might or might not lead you to enlightenment through your alchemical practice, and we also have mercury the metal, with its indwelling mercurial spirit, as it were. Hermes is more than a figurehead – his name is associated with a body of literature which has influenced both alchemists and the Western esoteric tradition. Hence the broad term ‘Hermetic tradition’. Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke, in his excellent study The Western Esoteric Traditions, points out that the cult of Hermes was founded on the Egyptian traditions associated with Thoth, and that Hermes evolved into a kind of ‘syncretic god’ who had a profound influence on the whole development of esoteric work up until the Renaissance period. I would say it goes further than that, actually. Walter Scott and G.R.S. Mead, for instance, were keen to plumb the wisdom of the so-called Hermetic texts, and to translate them for others to read in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. They have left us a legacy that we value today.
So we can see Hermes/Mercury as a kind of guide in individual practice of alchemy. But also as a mischievous creature, apt to lead us astray. Michael Sendivogius, in his alchemical treatise The New Chemical Light, which was published around 1608, addresses his readers as “the Sons of Hermes” and includes a wonderful dialogue between the alchemist and Mercury. Here Mercury is the trickster spirit who plagues the alchemist with his cunning ways – the alchemist decides to invoke Mercury himself to shed light on what’s going wrong with his experiments. Mercury appears to him, but laughing his head off! Then they engage in a clever battle of words, at the end of which the alchemist is none the wiser, and demands that Mercury tells him how to make the Philosopher’s Stone, which is another term for Alchemical Gold or the Elixir. Mercury neatly wraps up the repartee with, “Mr Philosopher, if you know, you can make it, and if you don’t, you can’t.” That one gets me laughing too! Suddenly, it’s like the tales of Hodja Nasreddin, or a lesson from Gurdjieff. I prepared a version of this dialogue, and we performed it – perhaps for the first time in nearly 400 years? – at an alchemical conference in Prague. Not many people think of alchemy as being a source of humour, but it’s there, if you dig for it. And we can probably attribute it to the Hermetic influence.
Anyway, the role of Hermes and his sidekick Mercury make for a fascinating study, one that I want to continue with. But as far as I’m concerned, it’s more than something on the page. On three occasions, Mercury a.k.a. Hermes has actually turned up in my life. Laugh if you will! The first was when I was still a student, in 1970. My boyfriend and I were in Amsterdam, and it was just at the start of my interest in the Kabbalistic Tree of Life and astrology. We met a man in a bar – as you do – and I think I’ll find it easier just to quote from an account that I wrote about this meeting a few years later, if you’ve got the space to include it:
The streets were dark, and the bar where we went was dimly lit. I recall nothing of his face, or how we began to talk to him. But there cannot have been much small talk before we were all into the realms of psychic and esoteric knowledge. Then I mentioned the Kabbalistic Tree of life, which we had just learned to draw out and name. He showed interest, and asked us what it was. One of us sketched out the diagram and we described the significance of the different sefirot to him. He nodded, and replied, ‘I just wanted to see how much you knew about it’.
We all exited the bar together, and made our way up to Central Station. It is only from this point that I have a vague recollection of a friend who accompanied him. On the way, we learned more about him, or rather his identity became even less certain as he professed dual if not triple nationality, spoke alternately in French and English, admitted to being known by more than one name, was not keen to be noticed by the police, and mentioned that he had several countries of residence. At the station he fetched a large rucksack, full of books from a left luggage locker. He couldn’t travel round without books, he said, but these were weighing heavy on him and he wanted to give us a number to lighten his load. We took an armful from him, and said our goodbyes.
Only later did I remember that Mercury, planetary lord of the sephira Hod, and the neophyte’s entry point on the Kabbalistic Tree, is represented as an elusive, shadowy figure, speaker of many tongues. He is coexistent with Hermes, himself a symbol of the ‘Hermetic work’. He is a traveller of no fixed abode, a trickster, and a bringer of books and knowledge. It’s said that he is also fond of a joke now and then.
RS: That’s a fascinating story. It strikes me as an example of the way the mythical and the occult actually do manifest in daily life – as opposed to the ridiculous clichéd forms you see in horror movies. To go on: why did the old alchemical texts rely so heavily on symbols and emblems rather than verbal descriptions?
CG: I think it’s clear that you couldn’t really explain alchemy in normal, so-called rational terms. Alchemy doesn’t work as a collection of recipes, as many practitioners have found to their cost. It was considered important too that each alchemist should work it out in their own way. Alchemy has to speak to the spirit; it isn’t just an assemblage and processing of materials. So the symbols can do that. They really stirred the spirit of the historical alchemists, and still resonate for many of us today. Some are very complex, and also very beautiful. Dragons, kings and queens, water and fire, serpents, lovers, lions – a rich panoply of imagery. Colours were very important too, as I discuss in my book. They had their own validity and presence in the alchemical process, and the stages of transformation were marked by colour changes in the vessel. Also the imagery poses problems and questions, which the alchemist must wrestle with. Why was the king sick in bed? What were the dragons fighting about? What do the steps on the mountain represent? This would generate insight and stimulate the imagination.
It’s also recorded that the secrets of alchemy came to certain practitioners through dreams and visions too – and dreams, as we know, deal in paradoxical, powerful images. The place of dreams in alchemy is a whole topic in itself, which again I discuss in the book. There’s evidence that alchemists deliberately cultivated visionary states, and practiced what today we might call ‘visualisation’.
RS: Carl Jung found much of value in alchemy. Do you find the hooking up of alchemy with psychology and archetypes of interest? Or is it just one particular slant that doesn’t reflect the real body of alchemical work?
CG: Jung found himself mesmerised by alchemical imagery, and used it to illuminate his psychological theories and indeed to help him towards new insights into the human psyche. I think he has done us a huge favour by reinvestigating the writings and symbols of alchemy, in one sense. It means you can have a conversation with a psychologist about alchemy, and that it’s crept back into our vocabulary again, at least to an extent. There’s much in Jung’s writings on alchemy that those with a modern education, and little time for prescientific theory, can relate to.
On the other hand, I also believe Jung done us a disfavour by cutting off the main body of practical alchemy, where laboratories, equipment, and materials were involved. He actually said that the alchemical operations of old were ‘senseless’ and never led to the desired goal. As I said earlier, if you slice off just one layer of alchemy, you may produce something with a kind of one-off value, but you also divorce yourself from the evolving path of alchemy. I do think it’s time that we moved on from Jung’s interpretations.
RS: How does alchemy work as a spiritual path?
CG: This is something that has to be done within a context. If you are a Christian believer, it’s perfectly possible to use the symbols of alchemy to represent stages of mystical attainment, and understanding of Christ’s teachings. Boehme did it, and so did the poet Henry Vaughan. I think that if you meditate on the symbols, and you embed the imagery in your consciousness, it will work there, to release your own limitations and expand your awareness in an intuitive, even cosmic way. That’s the power of symbols, and alchemical ones aren’t random – they form a kind of graded teaching system.
However, we can also use the symbolism in the context of everyday life, if we’re prepared to be attentive, observant, and aim to increase our conscious awareness. This has much in common with Kabbalistic or Gurdjieffian practice. I have written about it in Everyday Alchemy. You can actually start with very simple things – it needn’t be too high-flown or complicated. There’s a talk that I give which begins with the statement, “I’m an alchemist. I cook supper every night.” There’s a moment’s puzzled pause, then laughter, as the audience gets it! I explain that cooking is a process of transformation very much akin to alchemy, and that in our own kitchens we have the materials and the method to start to understand transformation. And that’s just the start. My own path, I would say, is a Hermetic one, and about accessing greater knowledge. Alchemy is a way to do that, and part of the job is reinventing the approach to have relevance to us today.
RS: Can you say more about alchemy and the creative process? Is it a model which could be used in any sense nowadays for creative work?
CG: Writers and artists have used alchemy as inspiration for their work for a very long time. Studies of Shakespeare, for instance, as I relate in the book, reveal that he was almost certainly using alchemical templates to plot some of his plays. This is not wild conjecture, but has scholarly backup. Therefore, I think those working creatively can dig into the symbolism, read about traditional forms of alchemy, and find inspiration for their work. I have talked to several artists about this, including one or two highly successful ones, who find that the framework of alchemy is a wonderful source for their creative work. One of the key points that strikes me again and again – with my writing too – is that alchemy is ‘hermetic’. It’s sealed, it’s private up to a certain point. The creative process must ‘cook’ in the vessel, and you must shield it from prying eyes. Too often nowadays we’re expected to talk about artistic or literary work in progress. No, says alchemy! Wait until the time is right, or you risk prematurely wrecking your material. It could all just evaporate. So you have to have courage and patience, and be your own guide for a lot of the time as well. All lessons which I think we could profit from today.
RS: Alchemy seems to imply there is some kind of consciousness latent even in inanimate matter. Would you agree with that view? If so, what do you think its implications are?
CG: I do agree, and have struggled for many years to try and understand and perceive that. I think alchemy was way ahead of its time in this respect. Once you start to break out of the dead end of the worldview of the material/mind split, you realise just what a grip it has on you. By that I mean me – and probably many of us. Whether or not the alchemical view of consciousness is really ‘true’ in a scientific sense, I think it’s incredibly important to see just how our values and outlook are shaped by religious, cultural, and scientific thinking. We tend to assume them as the norm, whether we like them or not. And we desperately need new models to go forward. And as far as I can tell, there is progress on the scientific or biological front too in accepting a broader definition of consciousness. According to the biologist Rupert Sheldrake, we do have “species mind,” for instance. I think it will also improve our care of the environment if we even concede the possibility that consciousness of some kind is within everything. And restrict the waste, for instance, of food and resources. I’m not one for saying that all yoghurt in the world cries when you eat a pot of yoghurt! Seriously, I have heard that said! But I can’t bear the waste of life forms, both of plants and animals and probably mineral too, which taints human culture now.
And, after all, what is consciousness? I don’t mean that as a clever-clever question. But it strikes me there is much further to go in unravelling its mysteries. For instance, how come we are apparently ‘unconscious’ at night, and yet we can create the most amazing dreams? We may generate insights, and even when not dreaming, our identity remains during sleep. How do we often know exactly what time it is when we wake up, if some form of consciousness has not been operating? If we take a broader view of consciousness, rebrand it if you like, we can go much further in our discoveries.
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