'To make of the body a spirit and of the spirit a body'
Alchemy describes the processes based on the four elements (see the Spectrum of elements and ethers as well as elementals of nature), whereby the lower is transformed into the higher (see Transmutation or Man's transformation and spiritualization). Its essence is about transformation of one substance into another by using spiritual influences and forces of nature (see etheric Formative forces), and this both with substance of the lower kingdoms, as with the highest kingdom of Man - the human being.
Hence, the term alchemy has an exoteric and esoteric meaning:
- 'outer' applying the process of transmutation to physical substance of the kingdoms of nature.
- In the experimental lab practice of alchemy, the practioner works with substances of the kingdoms of nature in a spiritual way, that is: treating them as spiritual substances and processes.
- Plant kingdom: Spagyrics is the alchemy based on plants and herbs (using alchol or mineral extraction), and essences can be used in medicine.
- Mineral kingdom: Well known from many legends is the process of converting lead into gold, also referred to as the 'secret of the philosopher's stone'.
- In nature, the process of the four seasons in the cycle of the year can also be described in alchemical terms
- In the experimental lab practice of alchemy, the practioner works with substances of the kingdoms of nature in a spiritual way, that is: treating them as spiritual substances and processes.
- 'inner' applying to one's own Self, where the aim of alchemy is to purify one's self. Man and the processes in the human being are described in the language of the four elements and alchemical processes.
The two aspects above have the same underlying spiritual working principles, and alchemy uses an own symbolic language based on the states of aggregation whereby material processes are metaphors for spiritual transformations going from chaos to structure (see below).
- alchemy in nature:
- see Schema FMC00.249 on Rhythm of a year for summary overview of the alchemy of nature in the yearly cycle of the four seasons
- see Schema FMC00.467 on Mineral kingdom for a view on the alchemical workings between chemical elements in organic chemistry
- twelve stages or processes:
- some alchemical manuscripts mention twelve operations (not always given in the same order or name), that describe the different aspects of the single process of purification
- the stages or processes are: calcination, dissolution, separation, conjunction, putrefaction, coagulation, cibation, sublimation, fermentation, exaltation, multiplication, projection
- these twelve stages or processes are sometimes linked to the the twelve signs of the zodiac
- alchemical lab alchemy vs soul alchemy
language or descriptive framework
- the key terms in the language glossary of alchemy
- sulphur, mercury, salt (Schema FMC00.162). Every metal consists of sulphur and mercury (see also the chinese yin-yang) with its typical characteristics:
- sulphur: spirit, male, active pole, divine command or spiritual will
- fire or warmth: the dynamic power of expansion and growth
- dry: coagulates and fixes form
- mercury or quicksilver: soul, female, passive pole, feminine character of nature, plastic 'mouldeable' capacity
- coldness: power of contraction, fast-holding like a womb
- water or wetness or moist: dissolving character, receptivity, flexibility to take on any form
- sulphur: spirit, male, active pole, divine command or spiritual will
- solve et coagula (Schema FMC00.163) represent the two opposite but mutually complementary forces in transmutation, dissolving imperfections and chrystallizing again to a nobler form using the forces in nature
- solve: dissolution or disentigration
- coagula: coagulation or formation
- operis procession multum naturae placet: latin for 'the progress of the Work pleases nature greatly', meaning that nature comes to the aid in the processes of alchemy, because the great Work uses the spiritual forces in nature (see Formative forces and The two etheric streams)
- sulphur, mercury, salt (Schema FMC00.162). Every metal consists of sulphur and mercury (see also the chinese yin-yang) with its typical characteristics:
- alchemy as a language used in the middle-ages, a framework of concepts and symbols to describe the processes in Man and on Earth (see Schema FMC00.154, e.g. 1917-03-20-GA175, 1923-01-13-GA220, or Burckhardt below)
- link between the language of salt, mercury, sulphur with ancient Greek mythology (see aspects on that pages, as well as Greek mythology#1918-01-04-GA180 2)
- Gaea and Uranus<-> Intuition <-> Salt
- Rhea and Chronos <-> Inspiration <-> Mercury
- Hera-Zeus <-> Imagination <-> Sulphur
- Today the terms is most commonly used in a context of medieval practices, such as the philosopher's stone, etc. Historically, probably the most famous book about alchemy is: 'The chemical wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz' (1616), by Johannes Valentinus Andreae, and the most famous alchemist was the legendary Nicolas Flamel (ca 1330-1418).
- However, the four elements are foundational in most ancient traditions such as Greece, Egypt or India, and hence these teachings also contain some form of alchemy.
- What is considered alchemy (and astrology) today is but an inkling compared to what it was in wisdom traditions in the ancient Mysteries. In those times alchemy was intercourse with the spirits of nature (of the elements), they were used for investigating the inner being of Man (1923-12-22-GA232)
- In the current cultural age since the 15th century, alchemy has been the subject of books and studies of numerous of the most famous scholars, such as e.g. Carl Jung, Roger Bacon, Isaac Newton, and many others. And because the four elements and alchemy are part of the spiritual scientific body of knowledge, many figures have been put under the denominator of alchemy, eg Faust, Paracelsus, Agrippa, Albertus Magnus, Alain de Lille, Johannes Trithemius.
- Well known 20th century alchemists include Alexander von Bernus (1880-1965) and Eugene Canseliet (1899-1982), pupil of Fulcanelli. Others were modern scientists by education and profession - such as Albert Riedel (1911-1984) and Jean Dubuis (1919-2010) who established alchemy under a modern footing. The rosecrucian Albert Riedel, also known as Frater Albertus, founded the Paracelsus College. (see references below)
See 'Further reading' section below, as well as Sources of spiritual science and More sources on the topic of initiation
Schema FMC00.162: alchemical principles based on the four elements
Schema FMC00.163 depicts the famous alchemical saying 'solve et coagula' with reference to the process of transformation or transmutaion and the underlying two polar opposite processes. In English it means:
- 'dissolve' (dilute, disperse, breaking down or break apart, decomposing, vanishing of hardened positions) and
- 'coagulate' (cluster, gather or form into mass, recomposing, a new synthesis or integration).
Observe: (re: Mineral kingdom#1922-07-02-GA213 and 1924-06-11-GA327 below)
- Nitrogen as the element through which the spiritual forces enter, mapping to the astral
- Carbon as the earthly element in which man is grounded (see or the physical-mineral scaffold structure
- Oxygen as the etheric life-bearer
Schema FMC00.163A is an illustration from 'Secret Symbols of the Rosicrucians' (original in DE: 'Geheime Figuren der Rosenkreuzer aus dem 16ten und 17ten Jahrhundert' published in 1785 or 1788).
The two triangles are a different way to represent the middle of Schema FMC00.163 (alchemy), showing the two etheric force fields or influences, see FMC00.324 on The two etheric streams for another presentation from that same age and book. Both schemas (FMC00.163A and FMC00.324) illustrate what is described in Schema FMC00.154 below: how in earlier times another language was used as we the one we use in contemporary spiritual science today (but describing the same realities).
Schema FMC00.154 provides a tabular summary from a lecture where Rudolf Steiner describes the alchemical terms as inner processes, and as a terminology representative of a different age (illustrated with the figures of J. Boehme, Bacon, G. Bruno).
Lecture coverage and references
.. wherever metallic soul, spirit and form are to be found, there too are metallic quicksilver, sulphur and salt
discusses the language of salt, mercury and sulphur used by oa Saint Martin
positions medieval terminology of the processes in Man of salt, mercury and sulphur and maps them to thinking, willing and feeling, see schema FMC00.154 above.
positions what we believe are astrology and alchemy, compared to what it was in wisdom traditions in the ancient Mysteries
Herewith I have characterized that transition which took place from the spirit of the old Mysteries to that which the Mysteries in the Middle Ages were still able to be. Much pertaining to the old Mysteries was preserved traditionally, even in the Mysteries of the Middle Ages; but that which constituted the real greatness, let us say, even of the later Mysteries, whether the Samothracian or Hibernian, that which was the real greatness of these Mysteries, could no longer be attained in the Middle Ages.
Traditionally, we find preserved right on into our own days something of what was known as Astrology. Traditionally something was preserved of what was known as Alchemy; but we know nothing today — and even in the 12th to 15th centuries very little was still known — of the conditions of true astrological and alchemical knowledge.
No one can acquire Astrology through thought or empirical research, as it is called today. If those who were initiated into the ancient Mysteries had been asked whether by means of investigation and thought one can learn Astrology, they would have answered: You can no more learn Astrology through thinking or empirical research than you can learn the secrets of a man by those means if he does not reveal them to you. Just imagine for a moment that there was something which one man knew and which no one but he knew; and that someone thought he would like as an experiment to try and find it out, or would think about it in order to discover it. As you see, that would be absurd; and to experience astrological things through thinking, or experiments, or by observation would have seemed to one of those ancient men just as absurd as it would seem today that a man should seek to investigate by means of experiment the secret of another human being. For these ancients knew that the Gods alone knew the secrets of the stellar world: the Gods, or as they were called later, the Cosmic Intelligences. The Cosmic Intelligences know the secret of the stellar world, and they alone can tell it. Therefore the student had to follow the path of cognition which leads to an understanding intercourse with the Cosmic Intelligences.
The real true Astrology depended upon a man's attaining this possibility of understanding the Cosmic Intelligences.
And a true Alchemy did not then depend as it does today on a man's experiments and calculations, but on his learning to recognize the spirits of nature in the processes of nature, so that he could have intercourse with them; so that the spirits of nature could tell him how the processes took place and what really happened. Astrology in the oldest times was not a spinning of thoughts; nor investigation by means of observation; it was intercourse with the Cosmic Intelligences. Neither was Alchemy in those olden times an investigation through observation nor was it calculation; it really was intercourse with the spirits of nature.
This it is necessary to know. If we had gone to an ancient Egyptian, and especially to a Chaldean of very ancient times, he would have told us: “I use my observatory in order with the help of my instruments to be able to hold converse with the Cosmic Intelligences.” A man who, being a medieval natural scientist, a pious scientist in the Middle Ages, stood before his retort and scientifically investigated on the one hand the inner being of man, and on the other the weaving and working of the great world of nature, this medieval investigator would have said: “I am experimenting because, through my experiments, the spirits of nature speak to me.” The Alchemist was one who evoked the spirits of nature. Everything regarded later as Alchemy is simply a decadent product. Everything which in ancient times was Astrology was the result of intercourse with the Cosmic Intelligences.
In the epoch during the first centuries after the rise of Christianity this ancient Astrology, that means, intercourse with the Cosmic Intelligences, was already past; but there was still some tradition of it. Men then began to calculate when the stars were in opposition or stood in conjunction, and so on. They still possessed what had come over as tradition from those times when astrologers had intercourse with the Cosmic Intelligences; but, whereas in that epoch, a few centuries after the rise of Christianity Astrology really had passed away, Alchemy still existed; and intercourse with the spirits of nature was still possible, even in later times.
And if we look into that which in the Middle Ages, let us say, in the 14th or 15th centuries was a real Rosicrucian laboratory, we find in it instruments remarkably like our modern instruments, or at least sufficiently like them to indicate what they were. But if we look back spiritually into these Rosicrucian Mysteries we find practically everywhere the older, more earnest, more deeply tragic persons, such as that one who later became the Faust of Goethe. But in contrast with what we meet with in these Rosicrucian laboratories as the person with the deeply tragic countenance, who cannot understand life, what meets us later in the Faust of Goethe is, compared with those Rosicrucian scientists, like the Apollo of Belvedere of newspaper articles compared with that Apollo who took form in sacrificial smoke rising from the altar of the Kabiri.
If we look back into those alchemical laboratories of the 8th, 9th and 10th centuries, and even into the 13th century, we really look into. a deep tragedy; and this tragedy of the Middle Ages, this tragedy of those earnest seekers is not described in any history book in the right way, because no one can look so deeply into their souls.
But those real investigators of the Middle Ages who sought in this way to investigate nature in Man and the cosmos in their retorts, they all had very evolved Faust-like natures, for they all felt one thing very deeply: When we experiment the divine spirits of nature speak to us; the spirits of the earth, the spirits of water, of fire, the spirits of the air. We can hear them in their whisperings, in their murmurings, in their peculiar flowing, humming sounds, which then pass over into harmonies and melodies, and in order to withdraw again into themselves. Thus melodies reveal when events of nature occur. Men stood before their retorts. They deepened themselves, as I have said, as pious men in that which then transpired in their experiments. Then in such a process wherein was experienced the metamorphosis of oxalic acid into formic acid, when they questioned this process, then it was that the spirits of nature answered them. They could as it were use the spirits of nature for investigating the inner being of Man. The retorts began to speak to them through colour-phenomena; they felt how nature spirits of the earth, the nature spirits of water, arise out of the oxalic acid, make themselves felt, and all this then passes over into forms of humming melody, and into harmonies which then drew back again into themselves. In this way was experienced the process which results in formic acid and in carbonic acid.
is the third lecture of the agriculture course
One of the most important questions that can be raised in discussing production in the sphere of agriculture is that concerning the significance and influence of nitrogen. But this question concerning the fundamental nature of the action of nitrogen is at present in a state of the greatest confusion. When one observes nitrogen today in the ordinary way one is only looking at the last offshoots, as it were, of its activities, its most superficial manifestations. We overlook the natural interconnections within which nitrogen is at work; nor indeed can -we help so doing if we remain enclosed within one section of nature. To gain a proper insight into these connections we must bring within our survey the whole realm of nature, and concern ourselves with the activity of nitrogen in the universe. Indeed - and this will emerge clearly from my exposition - while nitrogen as such does not play the primary part in plant-life, it is nevertheless supremely necessary for us to know what this part is, if we wish to understand plant-life.
In its activities in nature nitrogen has, one might say, four sister-substances which we must learn to know if we wish to understand the functions and significance of nitrogen in the so-called economy of Nature. These four sister-substances are the four substances which in albumen (protein), both animal and vegetable, combine with nitrogen in a way which is still a mystery for present-day science. The four sister-substances are carbon, oxygen, hydrogen and sulphur.
[Sulphur as mediator]
If we wish to understand the full significance of albumen, it is not enough to mention the ingredients hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen and carbon: we must also bring in sulphur, that substance the activities of which are of such profound importance for albumen. For it is sulphur which acts within the albumen as the mediator between the spiritual formative element diffused throughout the universe and the physical element. Indeed, if we want to follow the path taken by the spirit in the material world, we shall have to look for the activity of sulphur. Even if this activity is not so visible as those of other substances it is still of the utmost importance because spirit works its way into physical nature by means of sulphur: sulphur is actually the bearer of spirit.
The ancient name 'sulphur' is connected with the word 'phosphor', (which means bearer of light) because in the old days men saw spirit spreading out through space in the out-streaming of the light or the Sun. Hence, they called the substances which are linked up with the working of light into matter, like sulphur and phosphorus, the 'light bearers'.
And once we have realised how fine (delicate) is the activity of sulphur in the economy of nature we shall more easily understand its fundamental nature when we consider the four sister-substances: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen and oxygen, and the part they play in the workings of the universe.
The bearing which these things have upon plants will soon be made clear. Carbon, like so many beings in modern times, has fallen from a very aristocratic position to one that is extremely plebeian. All that people see in carbon nowadays is something with which to heat their ovens (coal) or something with which to write graphite. Its aristocratic nature still survives in one of its modifications, the diamond. But it is hardly of very great value to us today, in this form, because we cannot buy it. Thus, what we know of carbon is very little in comparison with the enormous importance which this substance possesses in the universe.
And yet, until a relatively recent date, a few hundred years ago, this black-fellow - let us call him so - was regarded as worthy to bear the noble name of 'philosopher's stone'. A great deal of nonsense has been spoken about what was really meant by this name. For when the old Alchemists and their kind spoke of the Philosopher's Stone they meant carbon in whatever form it occurs. And they only kept their name secret because if they had not done so, all and sundry would have found themselves in possession of the Philosopher's Stone. For it was simply carbon. But why should it have been carbon?
A view held in former days will supply us with the answer, which we must come to know again. If we disregard the crumbled form to which certain processes in nature have reduced carbon (as in coal and graphite) and grasp it in its vital activity in the course of serving the bodies of men and animals and as it builds up the body of the plant from its own inherent possibilities, the amorphous and formless substance which we generally think of as carbon will appear as the final outcome, the mere corpse of what carbon really is in the economy of nature.
Carbon is really the bearer of all formative processes in nature. It is the great sculptor of form, whether we are dealing with the plant whose form persists for a certain time or with the ever-changing form of the animal organism. It bears within it not only its black substantiality, but, in full activity and inner mobility it bears within it the formative cosmic prototypes, the great world-imaginations from which living form in nature must proceed. A hidden sculptor is at work in carbon, and in building up the most diverse forms in nature, this hidden sculptor makes use of sulphur.
[Process in Man vs plant]
If, therefore, we regard the activities of carbon in Nature in the right way, we shall see that
- the cosmic spirit which is active as a sculptor “moistens” itself, as it were, with sulphur,
- and with the help of carbon builds up the relatively permanent plant form and also the human form which is dissolved at the moment it is created.
- For what makes the human body human, and not plant-like, is precisely the fact that at each moment, through the elimination of carbon, the form it has taken on can be immediately destroyed and replaced by another, the carbon being united to oxygen and exhaled as carbon-dioxide. As carbon would make our bodies firm and stiff like a palm tree, the breathing process wrenches it out of its stiffness, unites it with oxygen and drives it outwards. Thus, we gain a mobility which as human beings we must have. In plants, however (and even in annuals) carbon is held fast within a fixed form.
There is an old saying that 'Blood is a very special fluid'” We are right in saying that the human I pulsates in the blood, and manifests itself physically in doing so; or speaking more strictly it is along the tracks provided by the carbon, in its weaving and working, and forming and unforming of itself that the spiritual principle in man, called the I, moves within the blood, moistening itself with sulphur.
And just as the human I, the essential spirit of man, lives in carbon, so also does the world-I live (through the mediation of sulphur) in that substance that is ever forming and unforming itself — carbon.
The fact is that in the early stages of the Earth's development it was carbon alone which was deposited or precipitated. It was not until later that, for example, lime came into existence, supplying Man with the foundation for the creation of a more solid bony structure.
In order that the organism which lives in the carbon might be moved about, Man and the higher animals provided a supporting structure in the skeleton which is made of lime. In this way, by making mobile the carbon form within him, man raises himself from the merely immobile mineral lime formation which the earth possesses and which he incorporates in order to have solid earth-matter within his body. The bony lime structure represents the solid earth within the human body.
Underlying every living being there is a scaffolding of carbon, more or less either relatively permanent or continually fluctuating, in the tracks of which the spiritual principle moves through the world.
Let us make a schematic drawing of this so that you can see the matter quite clearly before you. Here is such a scaffolding which the spirit builds up somehow or other with the help of sulphur. Here we have either the continuously changing carbon which moves in the sulphur in highly diluted form, or else we have, as in the plants, a more or less solidified carbon structure which is united with other ingredients.
Now as I have often pointed out, a human or any other living being must be penetrated by an etheric element which is the actual bearer of life. The carbon structure of a living being must therefore be penetrated by an etheric element which will either remain stationary about the timbers of this scaffolding or retain a certain mobility. But the main thing is that the etheric element is in both cases distributed along the scaffolding.
This etheric element could not abide our physical earth world, if it remained alone. It would slide through instead of gripping what it has to grip in the physical earthly world, if it were without a physical bearer.
(For it is a peculiarity of earth conditions that the spiritual must always have physical bearers. The materialists regard the physical bearer only, and overlook the spiritual. To an extent, they are right, because it is indeed the physical bearer which is first met with. But they overlook the fact that it is the spiritual which makes necessary everywhere the existence of a physical bearer).
The physical bearer of the spiritual which works in the etheric element (we may say that the lowest level of the spiritual works in the etheric); this physical bearer which is permeated by the etheric element, and 'moistened' as it were with sulphur, introduces into physical existence not the form, not the structure, but a continuous mobility and vitality. This physical carrier which, with the help of sulphur, brings the vital activities out of the universal ether into the body is oxygen.
Thus, the part which I have coloured green in my sketch can be regarded, from the physical point of view, as oxygen, and also as the brooding, vibrating etheric element which permeates it. It is in the track of oxygen that the etheric element moves with the help of sulphur.
It is this that gives meaning to the breathing process. When we breathe, we take in oxygen. When the present-day materialist talks of oxygen all he means is the stuff in his test-tube when he has decomposed water through electrolysis. But in oxygen there lives the lowest order of the supersensible, the etheric element; it lives there when it is not killed, as e.g. in the air around us. In the atmosphere around us the living principle in the oxygen has been killed in order that it may not cause us to faint. Whenever too great a degree of life enters into us, we faint. For any excess of the ordinary growing forces within us, if it appears where it should not be, will cause us to faint or worse. If therefore we were surrounded by an atmosphere which contained living oxygen, we should reel about as though completely stunned by it. The oxygen around us has to be killed. And yet oxygen is from its birth the bearer of life, of the etheric element. It becomes the bearer of life as soon as it leaves the sphere in which it has the task of providing a surrounding for our human external senses.
Once it has entered into us through breathing, it comes alive again. The oxygen which circulates inside us' is not the same as that which surrounds us externally. In us it is living oxygen, just as it also becomes living oxygen immediately it penetrates into the soil, although in this case the life in it is lower in degree than it is in our bodies. The oxygen under the earth is not the same as the oxygen above the earth. It is very difficult to come to any understanding with physicists and chemists on this subject, for according to the methods they employ the oxygen must always be separated with its connection with the soil. The oxygen they are dealing with is dead, nor can it be anything else. But every science which limits itself to the physical is liable to this error. It can only understand dead corpses. In reality oxygen is the bearer of the living ether and this living ether takes hold of the oxygen through the mediation of sulphur.
We now have pointed out two extreme polarities:
- On the one hand the scaffolding of carbon within which the human I, the highest form of the spiritual given to us here on Earth, displays its forces (or, with the case of plants, the world-spiritual which is active in them).
- On the other hand, we have the human process of breathing, represented in Man by the living oxygen which carries the ether. And beneath it we have the scaffolding of carbon which in man permits of his movement.
These two polarities must be brought together. The oxygen must be enabled to move along the paths marked out for it by the scaffolding; it must move along every track that may be marked out for it by the carbon, by the spirit of carbon; and throughout Nature the oxygen bearing the etheric life must find the way to the carbon bearing the spiritual principle.
How does it do this? What here acts as the mediator?
The mediator is nitrogen. Nitrogen directs the life into the form which is embodied into the carbon. Wherever nitrogen occurs its function is to mediate between life and the spiritual element which has first been incorporated in the carbon substance. It supplies the bridge between oxygen and carbon — whether it be the animal and vegetable kingdoms, or in the soil.
That spirituality which with the help of the sulphur busies itself within the nitrogen is the same as we usually refer to as astral. This spirituality, which also forms the human astral body, is active in the earth's surroundings from which it works in the life of plants, animals and so on. Thus, spiritually speaking we find the astral element or principle placed in between oxygen and carbon; but the astral element uses nitrogen for the purpose of revealing itself in the physical world. Wherever there is nitrogen there the astral spreads forth in activity.
The etheric life-element would float about in every direction like clouds and ignore the framework provided by the carbon were it not for the powerful attraction which this framework possesses for nitrogen; wherever the lines and paths have been laid down in the carbon, there nitrogen drags the oxygen along; or more strictly speaking, the astral in the nitrogen drags the etheric element along these paths. Nitrogen is the great “dragger” of the living principle towards the spiritual. Nitrogen is therefore essential to the soul of man, since the soul is the mediator between life, i.e. without consciousness and spirit. There is, indeed, something very wonderful about nitrogen.
If we trace its path as it goes through the human organism, we find a complete double of the human being. Such a 'nitrogen man' actually exists. If we could separate it from the physical we should have the most beautiful ghost imaginable, for it copies in exact detail the solid shape of Man. On the other hand, nitrogen flows straight back into life.
[back to breathing process]
Now we have an insight into the breathing process.
- When he breathes, Man takes in oxygen, i.e. etheric life.
- Then comes the internal nitrogen, and drags the oxygen along to wherever there is carbon, i.e. to wherever there is weaving and changing form. The nitrogen brings the oxygen along with it in order that the latter may hold on the carbon and set it free. The nitrogen is thus the mediator whereby carbon becomes carbon-dioxide and as such is breathed out.
- Only a small part, really of our surroundings consists of nitrogen, the bearer of astral-spirituality. It is of immense importance to us to have oxygen in our immediate surroundings, both by day and by night. We pay less respect to the nitrogen around us in the air which we breathe because we think we have less need of it, and yet nitrogen stands in a spiritual relation to us.
[Note on importance of Nitrogen in Man]
The following experiment might be made: One could enclose a man in a gas-chamber containing a given volume of air, and then remove a small quantity of nitrogen, so that the air would be slightly poorer in nitrogen than it normally is. If this experiment could be carefully carried out it would convince you that the necessary quantity of nitrogen is at once restored, not from outside, but from inside the Man's body. Man has to give up some of his own supply of nitrogen in order to restore the quantitative condition to which the nitrogen is 'accustomed'. As human beings, it is necessary that we should maintain the right quantitative relation between our whole inner being and the nitrogen around us; the right quantity of nitrogen outside us is never allowed to become less. For the merely vegetative life of Man a less quantity than the normal will do. because we do not need nitrogen for the purpose of breaming. But it would not be adequate to the part it plays spiritually; for that the normal quantity of nitrogen is necessary.
[Plant - elements in the soil come to life again]
This shows you how strongly nitrogen plays into the spiritual and will give you some idea of how necessary this substance is to the life of the plants. The plant growing on the ground has at first only its physical body and etheric body but no astral body; but the astral element must surround it on all sides. The plant would not flower if it were not touched from outside by the astral element. It does not take in the astral element as do men and the animals but it needs to be touched by it from outside.
The astral element is everywhere, and nitrogen, the bearer of the astral, is everywhere; it hovers in the air as a dead element, but the moment it enters into the soil it comes to life again. Just as oxygen comes to life when drawn into the soil, so does nitrogen. This nitrogen in the earth not only comes to life but becomes something which has a very special importance for agriculture because — paradoxical as it may seem to a mind distorted by materialism — it not only comes to life but becomes sensitive inside the Earth. It literally becomes the carrier of a mysterious sensitiveness which is poured out over the whole life of the Earth. Nitrogen is that which senses whether the right quantity or water is present in any given soil and experiences sympathy; when water is deficient it experiences antipathy. It experiences sympathy when for any given soil the right sort of plants are present, and so on. Thus, nitrogen pours out over everything a living web of sensitive lire.
Above all nitrogen knows all those secrets of which we know nothing in an ordinary way, of the planets Saturn, Sun, Moon and so on, and their influences upon the form and life of plants, of which I told you yesterday, and in the preceding lectures. Nitrogen that is everywhere abroad, knows these secrets very well. It is not at all unconscious of what emanates from the stars and becomes active in the life of plants and of the Earth. Nitrogen is the mediator which senses just as in the human nerves and senses system, it also mediates sensation. Nitrogen is in fact the bearer of sensation. Thus, if we look upon nitrogen, moving about everywhere like fluctuating sensations, we shall see into the intimacies of the life in Nature. Thus, we shall come to the conclusion that in the handling of nitrogen something is done which is of enormous importance for the life of plants. We shall study this further in the subsequent lectures.
In the meantime, there is one thing more to be considered. There is a living cooperation of the spiritual principle which has taken shape within the carbonic framework with the astral principle working within nitrogen, which permeates that framework with lire and sensations, that is, stirs up a living agility in the oxygen. But in the earthly sphere this cooperation is brought about by yet another element, which links up the physical world with the expanses of the cosmos. For the earth cannot wander about the universe as a solid entity cut off from the rest of the universe. If the earth did this it would be in the same position as a man who lived on a farm, but wished to remain independent of everything that grew in the fields around him. No reasonable man would do that. What today is growing in the fields around us tomorrow will be in human stomachs, and later will return to the soil in some form or another. We human beings cannot isolate ourselves from our environment. We are bound up with it and belong to it as much as my little finger belongs to me. There must be a continuous interchange of substances, and this applies also to the relation between earth with all its creatures and the surrounding cosmos. All that is living on earth in physical shape must be able to find its way back into the cosmos where it will be in a way purified and refined.
This leads us to the following picture. We have in the first place the carbon framework (which I have coloured blue in the drawing), then the etheric oxygenous life-element (coloured green) and then, proceeding from the oxygen and enabled by nitrogen to follow the various lines and paths within the framework, we have the astral element which forms the bridge between carbon and oxygen. I could indicate everywhere here how the nitrogen drags into the blue lines which I have indicated schematically with the green lines.
But the whole of the very delicate structure which is formed in the living being must be able to disappear again. It is not the spirit which disappears, but that which the spirit has built up in the carbon and into which it has drawn the etheric life borne in the oxygen. It must disappear not only from the earth, but dissipate into the cosmos. This is done by forming a substance which is allied as closely as possible to the physical, and yet is allied as closely as possible to the spiritual; This substance is hydrogen. Although hydrogen is itself the most attenuated form of the physical substance, it goes still further and dissipates physical matter which, borne by sulphur, floats away into that cosmic region in which matter is no longer distinguishable.
One may say then:
- spirit has first become physical and lives in the body at once in its astral form and reflecting itself as I. There it lives physically as spirit transformed into something physical.
- After a time, the spirit begins to feel ill at ease. It wishes to get rid of its physical form.
- Moistening itself once again with sulphur it feels the need of yet another element by means of which it can yield up any kind of individual structure and give itself over to the cosmic region of formless chaos where there is no longer any determinate organisation. This element, which is so closely allied both to the physical and to the spiritual, is hydrogen.
- Hydrogen carries away all that the astral principle has taken up as form and life, carries it out into the expanses of the cosmos, so that it can be taken up again from thence (by earthly substance) as I have already described. Hydrogen in fact dissolves everything.
Thus, we have these 5 substances which are the immediate representatives of all that works and weaves in the realm of the living and also in the realm of the seemingly dead, which in fact is only transiently so: Sulphur, Carbon, Hydrogen, Oxygen and Nitrogen, each of these substances is inwardly related to its own particular order of spiritual entity. They are therefore something quite different from which our modern chemistry refers to by the same names. Our chemistry speaks only of the corpses of these substances, not of the actual substances themselves. These we must learn to know as something living and sentient, and, curiously enough, hydrogen, which seems the least dense of the five and has the smallest atomic weight, is the least spiritual among them.
Now consider: What are we actually doing when we meditate? The oriental has meditated in his own way. We in Middle and Western Europe meditate in ours. Meditation as we ought to practise it only slightly touches the breathing process; our soul is living and weaving in concentration and meditation. But all these spiritual exercises have a bodily counterpart, however subtle and intimate. In meditation, the regular rhythm of breathing, which is so closely connected with man's life, undergoes a definite if subtle change. When we meditate we always retain a little more carbon-dioxide in us than in the ordinary everyday consciousness. We do not, as in ordinary life, thrust out the whole bulk of carbon-dioxide into the atmosphere where nitrogen is everywhere around us. We hold some of it back.
Now consider: If you knock your head against something hard, like a table, you become conscious only of your own pain. But if you gently stroke the surface of the table, then you will become conscious of the table. The same thing happens in meditation. It gradually develops an awareness of the nitrogen all around you. That is the real process in meditation. Everything becomes an object of knowledge, including the life of the nitrogen around us.
For nitrogen is a very learned fellow. He teaches us about the doings of Mercury. Venus, etc. because he knows, or rather senses them. All these things rest upon perfectly real processes.
... [on agriculture] ...
[Lime and silicon]
Now all these substances of which I have spoken, sulphur, carbon, nitrogen, hydrogen are united in albumen. This will enable us to see more clearly into the nature of seed formation. Whenever carbon, hydrogen and nitrogen are present in leaf, blossom, calyx or root they are always united to other substances in some form or other. They are dependent upon these other substances.
There are only two ways in which they can become independent.
- One is when the hydrogen carries all individual substances out into the expanses of the Cosmos and dissolves them into the general chaos; and
- the other is when the hydrogen drives the basic element of the protein (for albumen) into the seed formation and there makes them independent of each other so that they become receptive of the influences of thecosmos. In the tiny seed, there is chaos, and in the wide periphery of the cosmos there is another chaos, and whenever the chaos at the periphery works upon the chaos within the seed, new life comes into being.
Now look how these so-called substances, which are really bearers of spirit, work in the realm of nature. Again, we may say that the oxygen and nitrogen inside man's body behave themselves, in an ordinary way, for within man's body they manifest their normal qualities. Ordinary science ignores it, because the process is hidden. But the ultimate products of carbon and hydrogen cannot behave in so normal a fashion as do oxygen and nitrogen. Let us take carbon first. When the carbon, active in the plant realm enters the realms of animals and man, it must become mobile — at least transiently. And in order to build up the fixed shape of the organism it must attach itself to an underlying framework.
This is provided
- on the one hand by our deeply laid skeleton consisting of limestone, and
- on the other hand by the siliceous-element which we always carry in our bodies; so that both in man and in the animals carbon to a certain extent masks its own formative force.
It climbs up, as it were, along the lines of formative forces of limestone and silicon.
Limestone endows it with the earthly formative power, silicon with the cosmic. In Man and the animals carbon does not, as it were, claim sole authority for itself, but adheres to what is formed by lime and silicon.
.. lime and silicon are also the basis of the growth of plants.
We must therefore learn to know the activities of carbon in the breathing, digestive and circulatory processes of Man in relation to his bony and siliceous structure — as though we could, as it were, creep into the body and see how the formative force of carbon in the circulation radiates into the limestone and silicon. And we must unfold this same kind of vision when we look upon a piece of ground covered with flowers having limestone and silicon beneath them. Into man we cannot creep; but here at any rate we can see what is going on. Here we can develop the necessary knowledge.
We can see how the oxygen element is caught up by the nitrogen element and carried down into the carbon element, but only in so far as the latter adheres to the lime and silicon structure. We can even say that carbon is only the mediator. Or we can say that what lives in the environment is kindled to life in oxygen and must be carried into the earth by means of nitrogen, where it can follow the form provided by the limestone and silicon.
[papilionaceous plants (leguminosae)]
Those who have any sensitiveness for these things can observe this process at work most wonderfully in all papilionaceous plants (leguminosae), that is, in all the plants which in agriculture may be called collectors of nitrogen, and whose special function it is to attract nitrogen and hand it on to what lies below them.
For down in the earth under those leguminosae there is something that thirsts for nitrogen as the lungs of man thirst for oxygen — and that is lime. It is a necessity for the lime under the earth that it should breathe in nitrogen just as the human lungs need oxygen.
And in the papilionaceous plants a process takes place similar to that which is carried out by the epithelium tissue in our lungs lining the bronchial tubes. There is a kind of in-breathing which leads nitrogen down. And these are the only plants that do this. All other plants are closer to exhalation.
Thus, the whole organism of the plant-world is divided into two when we look at the nitrogen-breathing. All papilionacae are, as it were, the air passages. Other plants represent the other organs in which breaching goes in a more secret way and whose real task is to fulfil some function. We must learn to look upon each species of plant as placed within a great whole, the organism of the plant-world, just as each human organ is placed within the whole human organism. We must come to regard the different plants as part of a great whole, then we shall see the immense importance of these papilionacae.
... papilionacae .. have all the characteristics of keeping their fruit process which in other plants tends to be higher up in the region of their leaves. They all want to bear fruit before they have flowered. The reason is that these plants develop the process allied to nitrogen far nearer to the earth (they actually carry nitrogen down into the soil) than do the other plants, which unfold this process at a greater distance from the surface of the Earth. These plants have also the tendency to colour their leaves, not with the ordinary green, hut with a rather darker shade. The actual fruit, moreover, undergoes a kind of atrophy, the seed remains capable of germinating for a short time only and then becomes barren.
Indeed, these plants are so organised as to bring to special perfection what the plant-world receives from winter and not from summer. They have, therefore, a tendency to wait for winter. They want to wait with what they are developing for the winter. Their growth is delayed when they have a sufficient supply of what they need, namely, nitrogen from the air which they can convey below in their own manner. In this way one can get insight into the becoming and living which goes in and above the soil.
[Lime is greedy]
If in addition you take into account the fact that lime has a wonderful relationship with the world of human desires, you will see how alive and organic the whole thing becomes. In its elemental form as calcium, lime is never at rest; it seeks and experiences itself; it tries to become quick-lime, i.e. to unite with oxygen. But even then, it is not content; it longs to absorb the whole range of metallic acids, even including bitumen, which is not really a mineral. Hidden in the earth, lime develops the longing to attract everything to itself. It develops in the soil what is almost a desire-nature. It is possible, if one has the right feeling in these matters, to sense the difference between it and other substances, lime fairly sucks one dry. One feels that it has a thoroughly greedy nature.
... wherever it is, it seeks to draw to itself also the plant-element. For indeed everything that limestone wants lives in plants, and it must continually turn away from the lime.
What does this? It is done by the supremely aristocratic element which asks for nothing but relies upon itself. For there is such an aristocratic substance. It is silicon. People are mistaken in thinking that silicon is only present where it shows its firm rock-like outline. Silicon is distributed everywhere in homeopathic doses. It is at rest and makes no claim on anything else.
Lime lays claim to everything, silicon to nothing. Silicon thus resembles our sense-organs which do not perceive themselves but which perceive the external world.
- Silicon is the general external sense-organ of the earth,
- lime the representing general which desires;
- clay mediates between the two. Clay is slightly closer to silicon, and yet it acts as a mediator with lime.
Now one should understand this in order to acquire a knowledge supported by feeling. One should feel
- about lime that it is a fellow full of desires, who wants to grab things for himself; and
- about silicon that it is a very superior aristocrat who becomes what the lime has grabbed, carries it up into the atmosphere, and develops the plant-forms. There dwells the silicon, either entrenched m his moated castle, as in the horse-tail (equisetum), or distributed everywhere in fine homeopathic doses, where he endeavours to take away what the lime has attached. Once again, we realise that we are in the presence of an extremely subtle process of nature.
[How it evolved]
Carbon is the really formative element in all plants; it builds up the framework. But in the course of the Earth's development its task has been rendered more difficult. Carbon could give form to all plants as long as there was water below it. Then everything would have grown.
But since a certain period, lime has been formed underneath, and lime disturbs the work, and because the opposition of the limestone had to be overcome, carbon allies itself to silicon and both together, in combination with clay, they once again start on their formative work.
[Back to nitrogen in plants]
How, in the midst of all this, does the life of a plant go on?
Below is the limestone trying to seize it with its tentacles, above is the silicon which wants to make it as long and thin as the tenuous water-plants. But in the midst of them is carbon which creates the actual plant-forms and brings order into everything. And just as our astral body brings about a balance between our I and etheric body, so nitrogen works in between, as the astral element.
This is what we must learn to understand: how nitrogen manages things
- between lime, clay and silicon,
- and also between what the lime is always longing for below, and what silicon seeks always to radiate upwards.
- The tendency of substances to combine with certain others (in preference to others) was described by Goethe in his novel "Elective Affinities", Goethe described people as chemical beings whose amorous affairs and relationships were similar to the pairings of alchemical species.
- For the alchemical processes in nature, see Schema FMC00.249 on Rhythm of a year
- Worldview spiritual science
- Sources of spiritual science
- Transmutation as example alchemical process in nature
References and further reading
- Franz Hartmann: 'Das Wesen der Alchemie'
- Alexander von Bernus (1880-1965) proliferic writer, ao Alchymie und Heilkunst
- Albert Riedel (1911-1984) (works in German, English, French, Spanish, Italian, Czech). See also: Paracelsus Collega Australia and movies.
- The Alchemist's Handbook (1960)
- From One to Ten (1966)
- Parachemy/Parachemica/Essentia (1973-1984)
- 'The Alchemist of the Rocky Mountains' (novel, 1976) - see eg this web page for info for Riedel's visit to Eugene Canseliet (Fulcanelli's student)
- Jean Dubuis (1919-2010)
- has full courses available (1987-2000) in free PDF download online:, see the Portae Lucis website:
- Fundamentals of Esoteric Knowledge
- Mineral alchemy (Volumes 1-3)
- Plant alchemy or Spagyrics (Volumes 1-2) - plant alchemy
- The experience of eternity (2008)
- has full courses available (1987-2000) in free PDF download online:, see the Portae Lucis website:
- Titus Burckhardt
- Alchemy: science of the cosmos, science of the soul (original in DE 1960, first EN in 1967)
- Hermann Beckh: 'Alchemy : The mystery of substance from Genesis to Revelation'
- Mark Stavish: 'The path of alchemy: energetic healing & the world of natural magic (2006)
- Camila Rodríguez Galilea: 'Alchemy in Anthroposophy' (Master thesis 2019)
Note: Adam McLean inventorized alchemical books and came to some 1179 authors of books published before 1800, in a database of some 4678 books with 2810 unique works (info from the older Levity website, see list)