Folk Group: Alchemists

An essay by Natalie Desantiago


  • Who are alchemists?
  • What is alchemy?
  • A brief history of Alchemy.
  • How alchemists form a folk group.
  • Folklore of alchemists.

I recall unpleasant summer evenings in my stifled room: unpleasant because the arid air seemed to snatch away my breath, unpleasant because I didn’t want to leave my room to face my parents, and unpleasant because I didn’t want to lie to my parents. My family believed Catholicism was the only legitimate path to God, but I didn’t, so I stayed hidden in my room. When I left for college, I hid behind dorm room walls until I couldn’t afford it any longer and moved back in with my family. I was frightened to return to that room, to an enclosed, suffocating room, but what frightened me more was that my parents wouldn’t accept me for what I was: an alchemist.

Alchemy is the art of transformation, and it has one core principle that organizes alchemy. Because alchemy is a broad art, different forms of alchemy are practiced such as practical (chemistry), spiritual, social, artistic, therapeutic, and psychological alchemy. So, transformation will depend on the type of alchemy which is applied. The core principle is that alchemy’s goal is to transform the prima materia into the philosopher’s stone – to transform an element into perfection. In practical alchemy, the prima materia may be lead, and the philosopher’s stone would be gold, but the universal definition of the prima materia is the chaotic source of all that exists; therefore, alchemists believe spirit and matter derive from the eternal One, Source, and alchemists also believe that all matter is alive.  The philosopher’s stone is the perfection of the prima materia; perfection is to universally reintegrate, which is that all that emerges from One must return. Ultimately though, all forms of alchemy work together to serve the one purpose: to be One with the All; thus alchemy can simply be said to transform the mind, body, and spirit into the Philosopher’s stone.

Because no ultimate dogma or practice dictates the creation of the Philosopher’s stone, but a core principle, many individuals are alchemists, but only different in name. For instance, perfection of the prima materia, or the Philosopher’s stone, can be interpreted differently by each individual, so one individual may perceive it as to become one with all creations, or to another, to become one with God. Alchemy is of one of the many names of this single “truth” (I quoted truth as not to proclaim that it is the ultimate, but to explain that it is but only one interpretation of reality). Taoism and Jungian psychology are also forms of Alchemy,
but with different cultural and generational contexts. In Chinese alchemy, or Taoism, Tai Chi Chuan, Kung fu, and acupuncture are methods to reach
perfection; in Jungian psychology, individuation is the path for obtaining perfection. Essentially, alchemy transcends the practice and philosophies, such as Hermeticism, Arabian Alchemy, Taosim etc., itself, and the core principle aligns with many practices and beliefs such as Wicca, Animism, Shinto, Shamanism, Buddhism, and Hinduism, to name a few.

Therefore, I claim to be an alchemist because alchemy umbrellas my many beliefs with the core belief: “All is One, and One is All,” and that my spiritual journey to is to become the All in One. Although I was raised as Catholic, I began to question my faith with trials of illness and “sin.” But as soon as I began to learn about the world and the people around me, I was able to see that no one right answer existed; the world was no longer black and white (of course, this is my view of the world, and is not necessarily correct in the eyes of other groups), but that there are many paths to perfection, to become one with all, and my path was to follow that of an alchemist.

Although the source of alchemy is unexplained, most alchemists believe it originated in Egypt.  Still alchemical literature emerged 2,000 years ago simultaneously in Egypt, Mesopotamia, India, and China, but these texts also refer to older manuscripts, which remain lost and unknown. By 300 C.E., alchemy was widely recognized. Alchemy was a secret art until Alexander the Great made alchemical texts available in a library dedicated to alchemy in the city of Alexandria. Eventually, political strife led to the destruction of Alexandrian texts, but many alchemists in China and India continued their craft and continued to develop it. Alchemy in China began around 500 B.C.E. and is associated with Taoism. Similarly, Indian alchemy progressed. Eventually, Chinese and Indian alchemists shifted from practical alchemy to spiritual transformation. Some manuscripts of the Great Library of Alexandria were preserved. The majority went to Arabia while a handful was sent to Constantinople. Through Arabs, alchemy was disseminated and reached Europe. The true essence of alchemy persisted until the Middle Ages.

During the Middle Ages, most alchemists were executed by the church and by the ruling class if they failed to transmute gold. Alchemy began to deteriorate. Another sect emerged during this period; these individuals were known as puffers. Puffers were not interested in the true essence of alchemy, which is to be One with the All, but rather they were interested in the materialistic aspect – gold. Modern alchemy reemerged because the principles are “universal truths,” which are common to most cultures and belief systems. Thus, science, psychology, spirituality, art etc. acknowledge alchemy, and varied forms of alchemy continue to endure and evolve in other cultures today. This brief history only covers the direct understanding of alchemy and does not include the history of the sub-categories of alchemy.

Although alchemists do not all share the same history of alchemy, because of their different interpretations and cultural backgrounds, alchemists still belong to the same folk group.  The seven characteristics
to a folk group follow. The first, a folk group must have at least two people; because spiritual alchemy is an expansive outlook of life, I do not know all alchemists. Although I may not know many individuals who title themselves as alchemists, I do know many who fall into the sub-categories. Schools, online communities, study groups, and forums are dedicated to alchemy. Second, a folk group must claim recognition. During the Middle Ages and Renaissance period, the church deemed Alchemy against the way of God and imprisoned or killed anyone who practiced it. Those who did not conceal their work through Christian terminology were targeted for torture and death. These individuals who outwardly preached and practiced alchemy did not want their beliefs to be suppressed, so although there were severe repercussions, they still claimed recognition. The church recognized them and alchemists suffered for it. Third, a folk group must be motivated. Alchemy has been resurged through modern outlets such as teenage fictional novels, animation, and films. Harry Potter and the Alchemist are best world sellers and both incorporate alchemy. Even Japanese animators and manga artists have recognized alchemy and use it significantly in their plots such as Fullmetal Alchemist. In the past, alchemists also served as personal alchemists for leaders; the alchemists were mostly of interest because they were believed to have transmuted metals into gold. Fourth, members of a folk group must share
one thing in common: alchemists transform themselves to become One. The fifth aspect of a folk group is that one member may not know all members of the group, but do know the core traditions. As I’ve mentioned earlier, I do not know all alchemists, but I’m aware of traditions such as the core beliefs and folklore. Sixth, a member may belong to another group. Again, alchemy aligns with many other beliefs and traditions, so an alchemist may also be a part of another group. For instance, Zosimus, an alchemist, was also a Christian and believed that in order to gain real experiences with God, Zosimus must directly work with God than through religious authorities. Last, primary groups and secondary groups may exist. In the case of alchemy, this is true. Like Zosimus, who was both an alchemist, the overarching group, and a Christian, which may be
a sub-category of alchemy. Therefore, alchemists may not necessarily claim recognition as an “alchemist” because they belong to a different culture and are unaware of that term, but if they claim recognition of a belief system that aligns with alchemy, they still belong to the alchemist folk group.

Folk groups also have their own folklore, and depending on the alchemist’s sub-category or form of alchemy practiced, folklore may range from oral lore such as the mythology of Hermes/ Thoth, and the legend of Thoth to customary lore such as the Perennial philosophy and the black phase of alchemy. The Perennial philosophy is folklore that connects all alchemists, including those who do not use the term “alchemist.” The Perennial philosophy is the belief that all existence, seen and unseen, derive from One and that we must return to One. For instance, a god, Deva, in Buddhism, is only one realm of reincarnation.
Devas are also creations from One. The goal isn’t to become a Deva, but to
achieve Nirvana: to no longer participate in the endless cycle of life, death,
and rebirth. Nirvana can also be interpreted as returning to One, the source of all. The origin of alchemy is another form of folklore, verbal, and
specifically, mythology.

Thoth came from the heavens to Egypt and is not only the father of alchemy, but also of many disciplines such as medicine and magic. Thoth secured his canon of texts of alchemical writings within two pillars, which is known as the Pillars of Hermes. With the same subject, the myth of Thoth has become a legend, another form of verbal lore, which Thoth actually did exist, and he was not born on earth, but from another
universe, which explained his intelligence and wisdom. Moving away from verbal folklore, a customary aspect is the Nigredo, or black phase, of alchemy. The black phase is to reduce an element to its core properties. Chemically,different methods are used to reach the alchemist’s goal such as intense heat or cibation. Psychological alchemy also has a variety of approaches to reveal the true self; the black phase in personal alchemy is to actively delve into the lowest part of self, which will result in self-loathing, guilt, and emptiness, but the goal is to rid the false ego and outside influences to unveil the true essence of an individual.  One approach is to interpret dreams to discover the shadow, the true essence of self that which is hidden from our ego.  Another approach may
simply be aware of our thoughts, slip of the tongue, and jokes. These four
examples of folklore are specifically associated with only alchemy and can be applied to the sub-categories, excluding the verbal lore, with different interpretations. The folklore practiced within the sub-categories of alchemy may be applied to any alchemist, but not necessarily the reverse.

Essentially, alchemy is an art form that is not bound to one belief system, so alchemy can be applied to any aspect of life, any culture, or any generation. Therefore, many alchemists are alchemists with different titles, but what binds all alchemists is the belief that “All is One, and One is All.” Within this folk group, the art of alchemy, to transform and to return to One, can be applied to any of the sub-categories, but the sub-categories’ variation of folklore does not necessarily transcend from one sub-category to the next. However, alchemists who are not bound by one sub-category may practice their choosing of folklore of any sub-category, which is where I fall. As an alchemist, I have a distinct spiritual path that is composed of folklore from the many sub-categories of alchemy.

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