In her Esoteric Instructions H.P. Blavatsky writes:


“True knowledge is of Spirit and in Spirit alone, and cannot be acquired in any other way except through the reign of the higher mind, the only plane from which we can penetrate the depths of the all-pervading Absoluteness. … If man by suppressing, if not destroying, his selfishness and personality, only succeeds in knowing himself as he is behind the veil of physical Māyā, he will soon stand beyond all pain, all misery, and beyond all the wear and tear of change, which is the chief originator of pain. … All this may be achieved by the development of unselfish universal love of Humanity, and the suppression of personality, or selfishness, which is the cause of all sin, and consequently of all human sorrow.” (Collected Writings 12:537-8)


What is Alchemy? Alchemy in its deepest sense means inner transformation. The commonly accepted definition of Alchemy understands only that it is the knowledge of how to turn lead into gold. But let’s not forget that lead symbolizes the material, physical principle, and gold, the spiritual, divine principle in man respectively. Alchemy has both an esoteric and an exoteric side; as parts of one whole, they are in essence inseparable. Separating and combining are key concepts in chemistry; separating and combining were and are also very important in alchemy. But was it really possible to turn lead into gold? What were the alchemists really searching for? Why were they such a mysterious group of people, whose activities aroused so much curiosity?

Let me begin by giving a simple example. Nowadays, many people have themselves treated by an acupuncturist for all sorts of ailments and diseases. However, orthodox medical science firmly rejects this traditional Chinese healing method. This is because the existence of energy pathways in an energy body invisible to the naked eye is in their view sheer fictional nonsense!


A doctor once challenged an acupuncturist to demonstrate that these energy pathways really exist, saying that if you cut open a human or animal body, you can see nothing but flesh, blood, muscles, organs and bones. The acupuncturist’s reply was very to the point. He said: “Suppose we were to cut open your own body, here and now. We would indeed find flesh, blood, muscles, organs and bones. But where are you then? Don’t you exist either?”


As HP Blavatsky wrote: “Life, and everything pertaining to it, belongs to the lawful domain of the metaphysician and psychologist, and physical science has no claim upon it. … Scalpels and microscopes may solve the mystery of the material parts of the shell of man: they can never cut a window into his soul to open the smallest vista on any of the wider horizons of being.

It is those thinkers alone, who, following the Delphic injunction, have cognized life in their inner selves, those who have studied it thoroughly in themselves, before attempting to trace and analyze its reflection in their outer shells, who are the only ones rewarded with some measure of success.” (Collected Writings 8:241)


17th century German mystic, Jakob Böhme, wrote in his Theosophische Wercke:


“Since Vulcan kindled the mercurial wheel of fear, in which the soul imagines itself to be, the heads of these souls are turned only towards the multiplicity of natural things. The soul is entirely subjected to the vagaries of the passions. The enlightened soul, however, advises the poor soul to kill the monstrous serpent larva [that is, human desire] in itself, by entering the loving spirit of Christ, who, by becoming flesh, broke down the gates of hell and reopened the road to paradise.”


Vulcan symbolizes the awakening of the ‘fiery wheel of essence’, that is, all the properties of nature in the soul, in the sense of lust and desire. Lust and desire are represented by the astral radiance of the moon.


The Lord of the Rings: In Tolkien’s famous novel The Lord of the Rings, the ring stands for the power that matter can have over humans, especially in the form of jewels, money and gold. This is because humans are still under the delusion that lots of money means lots of power. But this is merely a temporary illusion, and applies only in that same material existence. It is a very narrow idea and betrays great ignorance concerning the true nature of life in the Universe.


So Vulcan symbolizes the awakening of the fiery wheel of essence in that existence. In Tolkien’s novel, the hobbit Frodo eventually has to throw the ring into the volcano of Mount Doom in order to banish greed. The ring was originally forged in this mountain by evil forces.


The novel gives a wonderful description of how greed can turn people into the ugly and tortured character of ‘Gollum’ and of the inner struggle between humanity’s positive and negative tendencies. Humans change into a version of Gollum as soon as their greed gains the upper hand, and they are even capable of killing other humans. Greed makes humans very ugly, especially inwardly.


In the novel, the good white wizard, Gandalf, is on the side of the Hobbits Sam and Frodo. Gollum, who accompanies the two hobbits on their journey, acts as the great tempter, constantly fuelling their greed and conflict. But we continually see Gollum’s own struggle with his better inner nature he calls his former self, ‘Smeagol’’, which really makes the story so gripping and relevant to the inner battle we all face every moment.


The story also includes Elves, portrayed as very loving and wise beings. It is interesting that in the middle of the story, the female chief fairy gets her hands on the ring. She, too, threatens to fall under its spell, and in the film her struggle is clearly portrayed in her facial expression. But as a result of her very pure inner nature, she is able to conquer this greed and ugliness, and free herself from the influence of the ring and from material urges and desires.


The Black and Golden Sophias: Alchemistic writings speak of the Golden Sophia, who signifies the end of the night of ignorance and the destructive materials of dissolution. She is the solitary, heavenly Sophia. But there is also a Black, lunar Sophia, who descended into matter and became imprisoned in it, and calls for help from the depths of matter. This exactly reflects what we humans are always doing, consciously or unconsciously. ‘Sophia’ is the Greek word for knowledge or wisdom, as in the term ‘Theosophia’, meaning wisdom and knowledge of the ultimate, inner Universe.


According to Hermetic symbolism, the Black Madonna represents the same idea I’ve just mentioned. When the sun and moon merge, there will be unity. This also applies, for example, to the concepts of yin and yang, male and female, matter and spirit, and so on. Once all duality in humans has been dissolved, knowledge and understanding will appear. That is why knowledge of esoteric alchemy is actually a transformation towards our inner self.


The Sun: The sun played a major role in many ancient religions, and the same is true in alchemy. The sun also symbolizes the gold of the alchemists. The inner sun releases humans from their self-made material prison of suffering and misery, and the black sun is the outermost layer of the solar monad, which dissolves everything with its dark, all-consuming fire. In Arabian alchemy the black sun also represents the impurities in ordinary gold that has to be washed away.


But the sun is a mysterious globe, the central point and the life-giving essence of our solar system. The sun not only played, and still plays a major role in many traditions. It was also honoured as a genuine god. The ancient esoteric Gnostic writings speak of the sun as the equivalent of what call in Theosophy a, ‘Dhyāni-Buddha’; however, this is a reference to the solar monad itself or the higher triad of the solar god, because the sun, like planets and humans, has a sevenfold constitution. There are even references to the twelvefold constitution of living essences.


The Root Races: What we observe is where we are at in our long road of spiritual development. For us humans, Theosophy tells us that is the fourth ‘round’ on the fourth globe of the earth in the fifth ‘root-race’. The fifth root-race goes back about 4.5 million years. It is called the ‘Aryan race’, but let me stress that this has absolutely nothing to do with the ideology of the Third Reich at the time of the Second World War!


Before the present fifth root-race, there was a fourth root-race, the Atlanteans, and a third root-race, the Lemurians, and so on.


With the consciousness that we now have, we therefore observe the fourth globe of the sun, the reflected essence of the true sun. And that same sun is merely an atom in the body of an even greater cosmic being, just as our atoms are monadic particles with their own development on the microcosmic level.


The teachings about the rounds and races are very extensive and require a certain insight. But it is above all the deep inner desire to search for the origin of life and ourselves as humans that enables us to achieve deep insights into the origin of that same life, wherever in the Universe it may be. It is very important to realize that the earth is a living essence. A life that makes its body available to us so that we can learn our cosmic life lessons. This includes both major and minor lessons, as both are equally important to our inner transformation. Dead matter is therefore a misconception, for dead matter does not exist. Everything is energy and life!


The Sevenfold Nature of Man: To return briefly to the sevenfold constitution of man: it is not only humans that have a sevenfold constitution, but everything that lives, including planets, suns, and the entire universe and even Universes! According to Theosophy, the seven principles are divided into an upper triad and a lower quaternary as follows from the lowest to the highest:


1. The physical body Rupa
2. Vitality Prana-jiva
3. Astral body Linga sarira
4. Animal soul Kama rupa
5. Human soul Manas
6. Spiritual soul Buddhi
7. Spiritual Monad Atman



As the book, The Seven Principles of Man, states:


“At the root of our being dwells our Âtman, the I AM, ourself – our sense of existence, of being alive. This sense of I AM is universal. It is the same in all creatures. And it is universal and the same in all because the inmost spiritual consciousness of every organism is an integral part of the universal self or Âtman, as a drop is an integral part of the encompassing ocean. And each single drop is like in composition and nature to every other drop and to the whole ocean itself.”


In, The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien gives a very clear portrayal of the desire principle in humans and our inner struggle against it. In Sanskrit, it is called ‘Kāma’ or ‘Desire’. Kāma, which belongs to the lower quaternary of our inner constitution, is also called the driving or impelling force. It is neither good nor bad, this being determined by how it is used by the brain-mind and the soul. It is this struggle that makes Tolkien’s book so compelling. Tolkien was one of those special people with a deep insight into esoteric knowledge.


As I’ve already said, alchemy really means a transformation towards our Inner Self. It means looking inwards and investigating, understanding that everything is present in everything else. This is a task that every living being should discover or uncover within themselves. And this involves removing the veils of matter concealing the inner soul and perceiving the being that is its true essence.

Medieval German mystic, Meister Eckhart, in his Deutsche Predigten und Traktate puts it this way:


‘The eye through which I see God is the same eye through which God sees me; my eye and God’s eye are one eye, one seeing, one knowing, one love,’


This means the same as the expression: ‘The perception, the perceived and the perceiver are one.’


Gottfried de Purucker wrote: “The heart of any sun is a most marvellous alchemical laboratory in which occur molecular, atomic, and electronic changes which it would be utterly impossible to reproduce in any of our chemical workshops.” (Fountain-Source of Occultism, p. 298)


In the Bible Paul is told from within: “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s spirit dwells within you?”


If our body is a temple through which our own higher self operates here on planet earth, it follows logically that our body is not just any old thing, but a living essence that we can use to transform ourselves. This means that we need to be very careful how we treat our body. Through ignorance, people inflict in a great deal of misery on themselves. Sickness and suffering are the result, and above all temporary stagnation in our inner development. But we learn through suffering and eventually it will enable us to continue to grow and transform ourselves. There is no real standstill, but the pilgrim will have to travel a longer path back to its origin. That is the freedom of choice and direction that we have.


Seeing the Higher Self: The divine self is observed by the lower self. Ātman, our higher self or the seventh principle, once freed of its Māyā or enchantment by matter, is able to see what it really is. The alchemists see as the apex of two polar or opposing forces the conjunction – that is, the connection and union of the male and female principles in the marriage between heaven and earth. Once that union has taken place, humans awaken from the shadowy realm of matter.


This reminds me of the story of Plato’s cave in his Timaeus, in which prisoners who are chained to face one of the rock walls thought that the shadows cast onto it by the dim light behind them constituted reality. But it is only their reality, just as what we currently observe seems to be our reality.

One of the prisoners, after being freed from his chains (symbolizing the chains of matter), left the cave and saw the sun’s radiant light. If he had gone back inside, full of enthusiasm, and told the others about this globe of light and the world outside, they would have called him a liar. Plato’s ideas are often cited and used as illustrations in alchemistic writings.


The teachings of the alchemists were also very popular in ancient Alexandria. When the old Alexandrian library was burned down, many books and writings on alchemy were unfortunately lost. I once visited Alexandria and saw the new library there. It contains a special, well-guarded department where very ancient writings that have survived the ravages of time are kept. The library of Ephesus also contained many famous works. Fortunately, quite a few have been preserved.


In ancient times there was a lively exchange between these two important libraries. This was made possible by shipping and marine trade routes.

But most of the writings have unfortunately disappeared.


Paracelsus once said: “Man is what he thinks. If he thinks fire, he is fire. If he thinks war, he is war.”


According to the Gnostics, our thoughts are not free from the law of action and reaction. Due to our material thought habits, we think that our thoughts are independent of our observations. But every thought takes on a form and has an effect on the psychic-astral plane, also known as the Ākāśa. The ancient Stoics called this plane the “ether” and the Hebrew Old Testament speaks of the “cosmic waters”.

According to the alchemists, the Christos that the man Jesus manifested to some of his followers, represents the divine body in every human, the only universal form in which all things are preserved in their eternal forms. It is also called in Theosophy, the Buddhic principle in man.


In alchemy the cross is used as a symbol for the crucible. The crucible is the place where the “prima materia” experiences the passion. It dies there in order to be reawakened to life, cleansed, spiritualized and transformed. The cross symbolizes the physical body.


Becoming the Higher Self: By crucifying the body, by letting go of everything that is matter, we are resurrected as ‘Christos’, united with our true being or higher self. ”Ātman is Brahman”, say the Hindus. And Jesus said: “I am the door, through me you will find the Father.”


All suffering leads to insight; that is also what the “four noble truths” of Buddhism teach. That is why we need to examine why we suffer and how we can be released from suffering. Alchemy tries in its own special way to explain what life is and why it is as it is.


I think that “Many roads lead to Rome”. Many ancient peoples, different faiths, philosophers, races, traditions and civilizations have tried to shed light on this wonderful mystery we call “life”. But bear in mind that all these groups of people were we ourselves, as is implied by the teachings of karma and reincarnation. For we pass from race to race, from round to round and from planetary chain to planetary chain.


“Man ought to learn how he came into the world”, said H.P. Blavatsky (Secret Doctrine 2:34). And I would add: “why he came into the world? ”


We have an obligation to try and find out who and what we are and what our true nature is, not least out of respect for all the earlier efforts by ourselves and those of the many, many souls in and beyond this universe, which is immeasurable and yet so near.


That is our responsibility towards all of life and in the name of the supreme love that the Absolute or Unknown cherishes for its offspring. Understanding this love, or rather, becoming this love, is our most noble task, our goal and our dharma, the highest calling and duty of a human being.


And then, once the inner heart of our being has been opened, the mystery has been solved and the alchemist has understood how he can turn ‘lead’ of the lower nature, into the ‘gold’ of the higher self, the transformation that has taken place will benefit all life throughout the entire Cosmos! – based on a lecture to the Royal Academy of Art, the Hague, Holland, delivered by Rita Houthuijzen in October 2014.


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