The Western Esoteric Traditions (Part 6)

My summer reading: The Western Esoteric Traditions: A Historical Introduction by Nicholas Goodrick – Clarke (Oxford University Press – 2008).

In this series of blog posts, I’m tracing the Western Esoteric traditions through history, with special attention paid to the contribution of these traditions to the work of Carl Jung.


As with the rest of the western esoteric traditions, alchemy originated in Egypt but quickly fell in line with Hermetic tradition absorbing the four elements of Aristotelian tradition. This allowed one element to transmute into another based on the attribute they shared in common. 

Jabir, a pioneering 8th century Arab alchemist, proposed a theory whereby all metals were all were composed of two elements: sulphur and mercury (Mercury equals Hermes equals Hermetic tradition). Not surprisingly, the Emerald Tablet again comes into play – “so as above, so as below”. Therefore, by transmuting and transforming metals, you could transform yourself. 

The prize of all alchemical work was the philosopher’s stone which outwardly turned base metal into gold and inwardly turned the baseness inherent in man (having fallen from the Garden of Eden) into the state divine grace.

Enter Paracelsus in the 16th century. His alchemical work inspired a new and ‘radical’ approach to science – experimentation and observation. His ideas spread as he travelled extensively throughout Europe during which time he enlisted as an army surgeon (i.e., the wars in Venice, Holland, Denmark). This allowed him to add to his new bow of medical arrows, the traditional medicinal practises of the herbalists, gypsies, and magicians he encountered along the way. Understandably, however, his new approach didn’t endear him to those whose interests lay in maintaining the status quo and so it wasn’t until 1526 when Paracelsus arrived in Strasburg that he flourished in influential humanistic circles of Protestant reformers there and also in Basle.

In his work Paragranum (1529-1530), Paracelsus argued that medicine should be naturally based, and this included it should be influenced by astronomy and alchemy. His major work, Opus Paramirum (1531), brought alchemical ideas as well as the work of Galen into the wider medical community.[1] There were four elements inherent in man’s functional design and each one controlled on of four functions (1) the processes of digestion and nutrition,(2)  the sexuality and reproduction functions of women, (3) diseases caused by “tartar” (stone), and (4) psychic phenomenon illnesses arising from the imagination.

Alchemy played heavily into all the work of Paracelsus. As far as he was concerned, making gold wasn’t the point. Instead, man should be perfecting what nature had left imperfect and, in this regard, he was inspired by the Renaissance Neoplatonic ideas of the unity of heaven and earth. In this endeavour, logic and rational thought were rejected in favour of “true  knowledge”, a reflection of that unity . In other words, to ‘know yourself’ is to ‘know God’ – and in this regard direct experience was essential. Partake in the fullness of the universe using all your senses and pay attention to everything that you see and hear. At that time, the prevailing idea was that the everything universe was full of ‘spirit’ and so this was easier to accomplish for Paracelsus and his colleagues then it might be for us today. 

In turn this led to medical reforms that put homoeopathy in the frontline. The belief was that sickness was the result of being out of balance with celestial influences and that alchemy was absolutely essential to help restore that balance.

(to be continued)


[1] Along Empedocles, Hippocrates, Galen developed humoural theory based on the ancient and medieval physiology and medicine. It’s all to do with the four block or ‘roots’ of the material world that manifest in certain humours and their related temperaments:

ELEMENTQUALITYHUMOURTEMPERAMENT
FireHot/dryYellow BileCholeric
EarthCold/dryBlack BileMelancholic
WaterCold/wetPhlegmPhlegmatic
AirHot/wetBloodSanguine

Humoural theory had a significant effect of Early Modern Drama, as for example, when Rosencrantz and Guildenstern arrive at Court in Shakespeare’s play Hamlet, the character Hamlet comments (regarding the theatrical entertainments to be performed) that ‘the Humorous Man shall end his part in peace’ (2.2, 320). By ‘humorous’ Hamlet cannot mean ‘amusing’, ‘comic’, or ‘funny’ (OED A 4) ) for according to the OED that meaning came first into use in 1652, approximately fifty years after Hamlet was written. Instead, Hamlet is referring to humoural theory.

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