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The Secrets of Hermetic Alchemy  

by Dirk Gillabel, © 1993

This article is also available in PDF format.

Are you interested in Alchemy? Ask yourself why! If you want to make gold to get rich, you have come to the wrong place. If you want to understand how you want to go the spiritual path to the perfection of you being, and the discovery of your divine being, then read on. But more important: practice it!    What is alchemy? It has been such a controversial subject that even after so many centuries, few people have any insight in it. How alchemical symbolism started is a bit fuzzy, but it probably came from the Islamic empire that once stretched throughout Northern Africa and part of Spain. Laboratory alchemy was practiced in the Islamic culture. At a certain point European Philosophers started to use terms derived from chemistry to express their spiritual practices and their world view. In Europe the Catholic Church did not allow alternative practices. With a symbolic terminology, it would be more difficult for the Church to persecute those who deviated from the established Catholic dogmas. As time went by, alchemy was expressed widely, from chemistry, metallurgy, pottery, glass making, architecture etc. Basically it was a search to understand nature, the cosmos, man. Religious and scientific principles were not separated as it is now, because in past ages people realized that everything is connected. Some people say that laboratory alchemy was only early chemistry. They are right to a certain extent. By trial and effort alchemists found new chemical substances. But true laboratory alchemy starts where matter gets manipulated beyond mere chemical reactions. Transmutation into gold, for example, is possible, but not by mere chemistry. Those who have accomplished it, and verified by those present, were very few. An alchemist who was able to produce gold from other metals, was considered an advanced spiritual being who had achieved spiritual transformation first. Without spiritual insight into the hidden energies of nature, laboratory alchemy is a waste of time, unless one just keeps trying.

alchemy manuscipt

Philosophical alchemists are only interested in the spiritual side of the Great Work. The term "Philosophers" had a different meaning for the alchemists than what we presently understand by philosophy. Dom Pernety (18th century) in his Dictionnaire mytho-hermétique, explains the term Philosopher as follows: "Amateur of wisdom, who is taught the secret operations of Nature, and who imitates its procedures to arrive at more perfect things than those of Nature itself. The name of Philosopher is given to those who are really instructed in the procedures of the great work, what is also called Science and hermetic Philosophy, because Hermes Trismegistus is considered the first one who became famous in it. Only they think that they truly deserve this name because they claim that they now nature in depth, and by this knowledge they become like the Creator, to which they direct their plights and praises with a lot of attention, love and respect. They say that this love is the first step that leads to wisdom. and they constantly recommend it to their disciples, whom they call children of Science." Read it again, slowly, because this the basis of what a Hermetic Alchemist is.


Hermetic or Philosophic Alchemy is not the well-known concept of transformation of common lead into common gold. It is about the transformation of oneself. That is only possible if one understands the true nature of oneself, and the firm understanding that one is in essence a divine being. Man as he is born is the product of Nature. However man can improve himself to become more than Nature. He is able to manifest his true divine potential, by transmuting his common, every day nature into the full divine nature that he really is. There are many ways to do this. Over the course of history people in different cultures have stumbled on different practices to accomplish this. When I first studied the alchemical scriptures, I thought that there was only one alchemical process, disguised in the symbolic alchemical language. The more I read them the more I became confused because of the many, many symbols and allegories. It was only later on I realized that the (hermetic) alchemical process described in the manuscripts is basically a very simple blueprint. No matter what spiritual practice you decide to use, it will always go through the basic steps or phases from the beginning to the end. I also realized that I practicing hermetic alchemy without knowing it. My meditation experiences were the same as what is described in the alchemical books, be it in symbolic language. When one starts out reading the alchemical manuscripts it all very confusing, because some of the books describe laboratory alchemy, and sometimes alchemical writers would intentionally confuse the matter. The hermetic alchemical books are so heavy laden with symbols, because each alchemist used besides the commonly used symbols, additional terms and allegories. When you try to interpret the symbols it is very easy to get lost. But when you start from the very simple blueprint, then you can easily understand what they are talking about. It came to me only after many years of studying other spiritual practices, especially the Eastern meditation techniques. The bases of these techniques, which is always spiritual transformation is always the same. Once you understand this simple blueprint it is much easier to read the alchemical manuscripts.


The Chymical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz by Johann Valentin Andreae and the Most Holy Trinosophia. by Comte de Saint-Germain are examples that the alchemical process is very much a personal experience.

Alchemists made use not only of chemical symbols, but also for a great deal of Roman and Greek mythology. They combined many concepts into a language that would express what they experienced. Experience came first, then they wanted to express it in a way that could be understood by others. merely words are inadequate for describing spiritual experiences, especially to somebody who is not familiar with it. Thus alchemists relied created images, and used myths and allegories. When you want to study alchemy, you have to learn to think and feel what those images mean, and what those myths and allegories mean in the sense of personal experience. If you keep yourself to an intellectual interpretation you will never penetrate the secrets of alchemy. A few manuscripts described the alchemical process in a form of personal experience although still in symbolic form.     

alchemist holding the elixir

If you are really interested in working on yourself, in transforming yourself from a common person into realizing your divine self, then read on. I will give you the blueprint and the explanation of the alchemical symbols and allegories. The Great Work, of course, you will have to do it yourself, on a daily basis, with love, patience and endurance. I will keep it as simple as possible. Do not skimp on this simplicity. Take your time to fully understand what is being said and incorporate it into your life. It is in simplicity that your power lies.

My explanation of the Great Work in this article is by means of alchemical images. Contemplate both the pictures and the explanations, and above all, apply them in your life. Reading and understanding is essential, but practice is the only way that will transform you. With each image you will get additional information. it is like a puzzle. The more puzzle pieces you have the clearer the image of the puzzle becomes.

The images come here without a reference of the original manuscript. For the purpose of this article this reference (manuscript title, name of the author, date of first publishing, etc.) is not necessary.

This article is basically a visual guide to the spiritual alchemical process and some of its symbols. It is important to understand the alchemical process is very simple and there is very little to know about it. But over the many centuries aspiring alchemists have come up with a multitude of symbols that are very confusing for the novice. Always be aware that many symbols and terms were used for one and the same subject or operation. It is only necessary to understand that one simple blueprint of the alchemical process, explained in the next chapter, and you will see that a multitude of terms can be drastically reduced to a few. Alchemists were people like you and me, who were in the process of discovering what life is all about and what can be done to spiritually improve oneself. Only a handful completed the entire spiritual transformation. All the rest tried to explain their experiences, knowledge and insights in a way that was clear to them but maybe confusing to others. But the following images and simple explanation will help you along.



The Essential Key of the Great Work

The Great Work is a Spiritual Process


The Three Phases of the Great Work

The Seven Metals

Twelve Operations

The Dragon

Gathering the Dew

The Peacock's Tail



The End of the Great Work

Examples of Interpretation of an Alchemical Manuscript:

The Book of Lambspring