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To: alt.magick
From: (John Michael Greer)
Subj: Alchemy (0000.alchemy.jmg)

Alchemy cannot be limited to the specific forms it took in medieval
European culture.  Chinese, Indian, and Islamic alchemical traditions
belong to the same matrix of thought, and have historical connections
as well -- Joseph Needham has made a fairly persuasive case for the idea
that alchemy as we know it was originally a Chinese idea in the first
plae.  Given this somewhat broader perspective, it's impossible to say
that all alchemy, or all "real" alchemy, is directed toward one goal.

Certainly the concept of metallic transmutation is found all through
the different alchemical traditions, but again, it's not the only

Might it make more sense to think of alchemy not as a single technique,
or even a single science (or pseudoscience if you prefer), but as a whole
range of esoteric sciences and technologies sharing a common theory --
the theory of transmutation?  Thus there are metallic alchemies and
medicinal (spagyric) alchemies, as in the Western tradition, but also
physiological and sexual alchemies, as in China, as well as spiritual
alchemies (common to both), the whole shebang united by a common theory
of the nature of the universe and the forces that shape it.  (The fact
that Needham was able to translate the _Emerald Tablet_, one of the core
Western alchemical texts, into the jargon of Chinese alchemy without
the least difficulty is at least suggestive of this common theoretical

It seems to me that there's no need, either, to stop the process with
the historically known alchemical sciences.  I've heard a very plausible
argument that cooking is an alchemical process, or at least that it can
best be understood through alchemical ways of thought; I suspect that
the same is true for a good many of the life sciences.  Then there's
always Gerrard Winstanley, the chief theoretician of the Diggers (or
was it the Levellers?  I mix them up) during the English Civil War, who
created a radical theory of economics (complete with the labor theory 
of value, two centuries before Marx) out of alchemical ideas.

Potentially that little word "alchemy" has the kind of applicability one
might associate with, say, "science".  Or would you prefer "alchemical
method" and "scientific method"?

While I'm by no means convinced of the
possibility of metallic transmutation, I would be slow indeed to dismiss
it just because current physical theory doesn't allow for the possibility.
Current physical theory has been wrong before, and something like the
Great Work of metals -- a slow, subtle process requiring infinite 
patience and quite possibly the interaction of not-quite-physical factors
related to the consciousness of the operator -- would be just the sort
of thing to be missed.

Our current technologies can open the safe of nuclear structure by blasting
it to bits with high-energy particles and similar brute-force methods.  I
wonder if the alchemists, instead, had figured out the combination on the

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