Though it has been historically misaligned as 'magic' or 'occult,' the merits of the alchemists' rigorous studies & experiments are becoming more apparent in modern times.
Also known as "The Great Work," alchemy has been derided by science orthodoxy as a quixotic search for the Philosopher's Stone- a material that could transmute elements into gold. In fact, the alchemists conducted reproducible experiments and discovered many scientific properties that are still relevant today.
Nowadays, there is also a wider knowledge of the metaphorical 'Great Work'. This consists of the inner work of transmuting the self, or Soul, infused within the physical limits of the material Body, into a gold-like, rarefied state of awareness that is expanded into the Spirit pervading all reality.
It's only recently that I've started to grasp the deeper concepts & symbolism in this lost tradition, that can be most succinctly described as "Mystical Chemistry". It was also an attempt at symbolically 'programming' Reality, through various physical & abstract means. The alchemical minds of the ancient past would be today's geeks & experimenters: computer programmers, physical scientists, & researchers.
Although I've read several books about the tradition & symbolism of alchemy, I recently finished the most clear & concise presentation of the topic that I've come across. I bought the book for only a few dollars from Sellers Books & Fine Art, a used bookstore in Jim Thorpe, PA. I could spend hours browsing books there on my annual visit to the Poconos.
by Titus Burckhardt
The book cover itself is full of alchemical symbolism:
• The androgynous twin- the male & female combined, with the sun (Sol) & moon (Luna) above their heads, and also in the background... all signifying the union of opposites.
• Polar aspects such as active & passive, the volatile & the stable, ying & yang, solar & lunar, are sublimated in the Alchemical Marriage of opposing principles, into a unified whole.
• This figure is surrounded by the alchemical symbols for the different planets, with their corresponding elements. From the left side of the picture: Venus (copper), Mars (iron), Sol (gold), Mercury (quicksilver), Luna (silver), Jupiter (tin), & Saturn (lead)
• Similar to the Freemasons, the fully-integrated androgen carries both a compass & a square, so that curves can be used with straight lines, to create any design.
• The two-headed figure is standing on top of the fire-breathing dragon- a symbol of the primeval & chaotic forces that the alchemists were trying to master.
• "REBIS," written backwards on the sign across the hermaphrodite's chest, means "double matter". This refers to the ultimate goal of The Work- to reconcile opposite polarities- like male & female, matter & spirit.
The word 'Alchemy' is thought to come from the name of Egypt in ancient times: Al-Kem or Al-Kemet. 'Kem' also means 'black'- referring to the base properties of the Prima Materia, or the coarse matter that makes up our world. Since the age of Dynastic Egypt millenia ago, the ideas that arose from investigating the nature of The Universe & The Mind have lived on, through the Hermetic Tradition. This philosophy is named after the mythical figure Hermes Trismegistus, Hermes "The Thrice Great".
The most well-known saying from The Emerald Tablet of Hermes is "As above, so below." I see this as a precursor to knowledge such as fractal geometry, which is the study of recursion & self-similarity at various scales of reality.
From these distant beginnings, the alchemical work has since been done by people of all religions; Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, Taoism, etc. Despite their differing theological dogmas, all these explorers were trying to discover new correlations between mind, matter, & spirit- the energetic source of all phenomena.
There are plenty of sources online to learn more about the ancient art of alchemy, but I'd highly recommend listening or reading about Terence McKenna's insights into the Hermetic Tradition. He was one of the greatest minds of the late 20th century & this was one of the many areas where he could give mind-expanding talks for hours.
I have listened to many of his lectures online, including this 4.5 hour workshop on Hermeticism & Alchemy.
Here is a shorter video with some basic info: