The alchemists of the Middle Ages studied natural processes, regarding them as the earth processes of nature. They distinguished, for instance, three different natural processes which they regarded as the three great processes of nature.
The first important process is the salt process. Everything in nature that can form a deposit of hard substance out of a solution was called salt by the alchemist of the Middle Ages. When the medieval alchemist saw this salt formation, however, his conception of it was entirely different from that of modern man. For if he wanted to feel he had understood it, the witnessing of such a process had to work like a prayer in his soul. Therefore the medieval alchemist tried to make clear to himself what would have to happen in his own soul if the formation of salt were to take place there too. He arrived at the thought: human nature is perpetually destroying itself through instincts and passions. Our life would be nothing but a decomposition, a process of putrefaction, if we only followed our instincts and passions. And if man really wants to protect himself against this process of putrefaction, then he must constantly devote himself to noble thoughts that turn him towards the spirit. It was a matter of bringing his thoughts to a higher level of development. The medieval alchemist knew that if he did not combat his passions in one incarnation he would be born with a predisposition for illness in the next one, but that if he purified his passions he would enter life in the next incarnation with a predisposition for health. The process of overcoming through spirituality the forces that lead to decay is microcosmic salt formation. So we can understand how a natural process like this occasioned the most reverent prayer. When observing salt formation the medieval alchemists told themselves, with a feeling of deepest piety: divine spiritual powers have been working in this for thousands of years in the same way as noble thoughts work in me. I am praying to the thoughts of the gods, the thoughts of divine spiritual beings that are behind the maya of nature. The medieval alchemist knew this, and he said to himself: when I let nature stimulate me to develop feelings like this, I make myself like the macrocosm. If I observe this process in an external way only, I cut myself off from the gods, I fall away from the macrocosm. These were the feelings of the medieval alchemist.
The process of dissolution gave a different experience: it was a different natural process that could also lead the medieval alchemist to prayer. Everything that can dissolve something else was called by the medieval alchemist quicksilver or mercury. Now he asked again: what is the corresponding quality in the human soul? What quality works in the soul in the same way in which quicksilver or mercury works outside in nature? The medieval alchemist knew that all the forms of love in the soul are what correspond to mercury. He distinguished between lower and higher processes of dissolution, just as there are lower and higher forms of love. And thus the witnessing of the dissolution process again became a pious prayer, and the medieval theosophist said to himself: God’s love has been at work out there for thousands of years in the same way as love works in me.
The third important natural process for the medieval theosophist was combustion, that takes place when material substance is consumed by flames. And again the medieval alchemist sought the inner process corresponding to this combustion. This inner soul process he saw to be ardent devotion to the deity. And everything that can go up in flames he called sulphur. In the stages of development of the earth he beheld a gradual process of purification similar to a combustion or sulphur process. Just as he knew that the earth will at some time be purified by fire, he also saw a combustion process in fervent devotion to the deity. In the earth processes he beheld the work of those gods who look up to mightier gods above them. And permeated with great piety and deeply religious feelings at the spectacle of the process of combustion, he told himself: gods are now making a sacrifice to the gods above them. And then when the medieval theosophist produced the combustion process in the laboratory himself, he felt: I am doing the same as the gods do when they sacrifice themselves to higher gods. He only considered himself worthy to carry out such a process of combustion in his laboratory when he felt himself filled with the mood of sacrifice, when he himself was filled with the desire to devote himself in sacrifice to the gods. The power of the flame filled the medieval theosophist with lofty and deeply religious feelings, and he told himself: when I see flames outside in the macrocosm I am seeing the thoughts and the love of the gods, and the gods’ willingness to sacrifice.
Drawing above: Caduceus with 3 Mother Letters – Shin on top, Aleph in middle, Mem on bottom
Shin Sattvas Sulphur Fire
Aleph Rajas Mercury Air
Mem Tamas Salt Water
The medieval alchemist produced these processes himself in his laboratory and then he entered into contemplation of these salt formations, solutions and processes of combustion, letting himself at the same time be filled with deeply religious feelings in which he became aware of his connection with all the forces of the macrocosm. These soul processes called forth in him divine thoughts, divine love and divine sacrifice. And then the medieval alchemist discovered that when he produced a salt process, noble, purifying thoughts arose in him. With a solution process love was stimulated in him, he was inspired by divine love, and with a combustion process the desire to make a sacrifice was kindled in him, it urged him to sacrifice himself on the altar of the world.
These were the experiences of one who did these experiments. And if you had attended these experiments yourself in clairvoyant vision, you would have perceived a change in the aura of the person carrying them out. The aura that was a mixture of colours before the experiment began, being full of instincts and desires to which the person in question had perhaps succumbed, became single-hued as a result of the experiment. First of all, during the experiment with salt formation, it became the colour of copper — pure, divine thoughts — then, in the experiment with a solution, the colour of silver — divine love — and finally, with combustion, the colour of gold — divine sacrifice. And then the alchemists said they had made subjective copper, subjective silver and subjective gold out of the aura. And the outcome was that the person who had undergone this, and had really experienced such an experiment inwardly, was completely permeated by divine love. Such was the way these medieval theosophists became permeated with purity, love and the will to sacrifice, and by means of this sacrificial service they prepared themselves for a certain clairvoyance. This is how the medieval theosophist could see behind maya into the way spiritual beings helped things to come into being and pass away again. And this enabled him to realise which forces of aspiration in men’s souls are helpful and which are not. He became acquainted with our own forces of growth and decay. The medieval theosophist Heinrich Khunrath, in a moment of enlightenment, called this process the law of growth and decay.
Through observing nature the medieval alchemist learnt the law of ascending and descending evolution. The science he acquired from this he expressed in certain signs, imaginative pictures and figures. It was a kind of imaginative knowledge. One of the outcomes of this was The Secret Symbols of the Rosicrucians which was described yesterday.
This is the way the best alchemists worked from the fourteenth to the eighteenth and until the beginning of the nineteenth century. About this truly moral, ethical, intellectual work nothing has been printed. What has been printed about alchemy concerns purely external experiments only, and was only written by those men who performed alchemy as an end in itself. The false alchemist wanted to create substance. When he experimented with the burning of substances he saw the material results as the only thing gained, whereas the genuine alchemist attached no importance to these material results. For him it all depended on the inner soul experiences he had whilst the substance was forming, the thoughts and experiences within him. Therefore there was a strict rule that the medieval theosophist who produced gold and silver from his experiments was never allowed to profit from it himself. He was only allowed to give away the metals thus produced. Modern man no longer has the correct conception of these experiments. He has no idea what the experimenter could experience. The medieval alchemist was able to experience whole dramas of the soul in his laboratory when, for example, antimony was extracted; the experimenters saw significant moral forces at work in these processes.