Alchemy and Masonry

Arthur Edward Waite

The descent from Mysteries of Egypt into those of the classical world has been compared with the descent of the soul into material things. It is a false analogy, marking personal predilection; but it connotes an idea of derivation, that Greece inherited from Egypt, nor that at so great a distance. I suppose that the scholars of both subjects would challenge the assumption, which is crude enough in its derivation. The quest of Persephone is not the quest of Isis; the story of the rending of Iacchos has no real connection whatsoever with the dismemberment of Osiris; and those Masonic virtuosos who mistook accidents of analogy for root-identity and essential consanguinity were misled herein, as in most of their other reveries. It goes without saying that there is a general likeness between all mystical traditions and all modes of mystical symbolism because there is a veridical and vital likeness in all mystical experience. That which is at issue is not a question of descent but one of common origin in the science of the soul, which science—so far as it existed in Egypt—has the appearance of being more overlaid and encumbered than it was in the classical world. Egypt, however, was the conventional fountain-head for the earlier Masonic literati, and perhaps after all the reason is not far to seek. They had heard, on very high authority, that Moses was learned in all the wisdom of Egypt, and they magnified the measures of that wisdom because of the mission of Moses, their mythical first Grand Master. Outside Masonic circles, in those days when the world of learning stood agaze at great masses of hieroglyphical writing which no one could read, Egypt was a world of wonder. It was a mystery written large upon the face of history, and the eyes of learning turned instinctively where Pythagoras had turned on his own part. A land of mystery was also the natural accredited home of things that were in themselves mysterious, and it came about—in the absence of all evidence—that the cryptic literature of Alchemy was assigned its origin in the ancient world of the Delta.

Mystic Alchemy

The question concerns us only for the registration of a definite negative, as a preliminary clearance of issues. So far as concerns the world lying West of China, the earliest alchemical codices are of Byzantine origin and belong to the fourth century, A.D. This stated, my next purpose is to indicate that in our country, and elsewhere, there has been much fantastic speculation as to the real purpose which lies behind the intellectual puzzle presented by the literature of transmutation. On the surface it deals solely and only with the conversion of putative base metals into the modes of gold and silver—which the alchemical hypothesis qualified as perfect metals. Some interpreters of the concealed art have been disposed to regard it as dealing exclusively with experiences of the soul in its progress and have said that what was changed in the figurative alembics of the philosophers was not metallic substances one into another: on the contrary, it was human nature which was transmuted into a condition that—so far as its form permitted—became akin to Divine Nature. The lessons of alchemical history and the fuller understanding of its literature do not take us in this direction, and by those who are qualified to judge there is no question that Alchemy is regarded as an experiment made in physics at least in its primary aspect.

Græco-Alexandrian Texts

It will be a matter of astonishment to most persons that there should be any need to insist on a point which is to all appearance obvious. Some twenty-five years ago the researches of Berthelot, who edited the Byzantine, Arabian and Syriac alchemists for the first time, read the alternative view an undesigned but remarkable lesson, which, so far, none of his readers have appreciated. He traced the indubitable metallic experiments of the Græco-Alexandrian period right through mediaeval times and exhibited in this manner the physical concern of a long line of Latin-writing “adepts” in Europe, while he created a strong presumption as to the express objects of the art, by whomsoever practised or essayed. There will be no need to add that with any other point of view he, as a pure scientist, was quite naturally unacquainted.

Two Alchemical Schools

All this notwithstanding, the truth seems to lie rather in a middle ground, and the literature as a whole justifies us in regarding the experiment of Alchemy as to some extent twofold in its character: this is to say that in part it was a mystery of science, but in part also the symbolism of this science was pressed into the service of another order of experiments. It follows that those who have regarded the soul, its phases and developments, as the particular object of research have not been far astray in respect of certain schools. The subject has been unfortunately too long in the hands of persons who understood neither material alchemy nor the term of mystical research, and it calls for adequate treatment under other auspices. Here I can say only that there came a time when the claims of the work on metals had fallen into serious disrepute and when there was—by the evidence of the literature—an increasing tendency to use the terminology of Alchemy in a transcendental and spiritual sense. Writers like Khunrath seem to have concerned themselves solely with the latter, and when, a little earlier, Jacob Böhme come forward to interpret the Secret Mysteries of Religion, he used largely the symbolical language of Alchemy as a ready method of expression.

A Masonic Analogy

It came about in this manner that Hermetic literature and the practice which lay behind it followed the same course that we are able to trace in Masonry. At a certain period in England the operative craftsmen and Masters in Masonic Arts began to be outnumbered by those whom we call Speculative Masons, persons of other business, or perhaps of no occupation, who had been drawn in various manners within the ranks. It would seem that the Lodges must in the effluxion of time have lost their raison d’être and survived for social reasons. So also it would appear that experiments in the transmutation of metals were less and less practised as scientific chemistry emerged slowly into being and provided a practical field where success tended more and more to crown individual effort instead of failure. The old books continued to be studied, but it was by another class of people, with other hopes and dreams. A new construction was placed upon the cryptic symbolism, and there opened out another field of research, having very different ends in view. But just as it is difficult to determine at what period the first elements of a Speculative or Emblematic Masonry arose in the Operative Art, and just as the researches and tentative hypotheses of writers like Mr. R. F. Gould endeavour to put back that period, so does a better and fuller knowledge of alchemical memorials encourage us to recognise a spiritual aspect of the Magnum Opus as present far back in the literature, not excluding even certain Byzantine texts. When, in and about the year 1717, Emblematic Freemasonry began to assume a definitive and concrete form, it was not for such hypotheses a new thing, though it incorporated new elements. In like manner, when Böhme, Khunrath and the makers of many other memorials, began to speak of eternal things and the mysteries of transmutation in the soul, it was no novel and arbitrary adaptation which began suddenly, for its roots go back—as I have said—and this also may have been even the concern of Zosimus in the fourth or fifth century of the Christian era. Finally, as Mark Masonry, through all its clouded past, has proclaimed its operative concern, and as we have among us at this day a so-called operative body which has come forward recently with a claim on antiquity in an unbroken line of descent, so—in a sporadic fashion—we have continued, on the Continent especially, to find the quest of physical Alchemy pursued, while a Société Alchimique de France has existed for a number of years in the interests of the physical work, knowing little or nothing of its alternative, and affirming that it has not been altogether unsuccessful in the path which it has followed.

Hermetic Masonry

Many schools of varied zeal, many hopes and dreams, many forms of faith in science, religion and philosophy gathered under the Masonic Banner in the eighteenth century, above all in France and Germany. It drew within its ranks such Alchemy as there was at the period, and there is considerable evidence that it was still a living concern. It came about in due course that Hermetic Grades and Hermetic Rites grew up. Being numerous and curious, I shall deal with the chief among them in their proper place. In the present one it calls to be said that—except in Rosicrucian circles, which were also Masonic—there is very little to connect either founders or members with a serious pursuit of the practical side of metallic Alchemy. The Rituals for the most part are unfortunately not available, for which reason—and also on other grounds—it should be understood that I am not adjudicating in any authoritative manner, but rather conveying an impression on the facts of the evidence before me. There is perhaps no subject which commandeered the whole man and his undivided attention like the research of Alchemy pursued in the domain of metals; but there is nothing so scattered in concern and so apart from the life of the laboratory as are the histories of people like Abbé Pernety and Baron Tschoudy, to name two Masons who stand out prominently in the story of Hermetic Masonry. I have no doubt that they followed chemical experiments, as and when their scattered and sporadic opportunities permitted; but they led restless lives and both were men of numerous activities, who carried the dossiers of several distinct interests. Their practical researches bore no proportion to the reality of their theoretical interest, and I think that they pursued Alchemy as others pursued mesmerism under the Masonic ægis. Their studies were those of the students’ closet rather than the laboratory: it is to this fact that we owe the works of Pernety and the Hermetic Catechism of Tschoudy. On the other hand, there is no trace in either of the spiritual side of the Hermetic work. For Baron Tschoudy Masonry may be described as moralised Alchemy, while in the alchemical writings of Pernety there is no trace of Masonry at all, as there is no derivation of moral or mystical lessons.


The invaluable researches of Berthelot will be found in (1) Collection des Anciens Alchimistes Grecs . . . Publiée par M. Berthelot . . . , avec la collaboration de M. Ch. Em. Ruelle. 3 vols., Paris, 1887, 1888. The Greek texts are accompanied by French translations. (2) La Chimie au Moyen Âge. 3 vols., Paris, 1893. The first volume contains Berthelot’s Essay on the Transmission of Antique Science to the Middle Ages. The second volume is devoted to the texts of Syriac alchemy and their translation by M. Rubens Duval. The third volume comprises the text and translation of Arabian alchemists by M. O. Houdas. (3) Les Origines de l’Alchimie, Paris, 1885, and (4) Introduction à l’Étude de la Chimie des Anciens et du Moyen Âge, Paris, 1889, are other essays of Berthelot, which should be taken in connection with the above. For the religious and mystical side of Alchemy see Heinrich Khunrath: Amphitheatrum Sapientæ Æternæ. Hanover, 1609: a French translation appeared at Paris, with all the symbolical plates, in 1900. As regards A. J. Pernety, see (1) Les Fables Égyptiennes et Grecques dévoilées et reduites au même principe. 2 vols., Paris, 1786. (2) Dictionnaire Mytho-Hermétique. Paris, 1787. The Hermetic Catechism of Baron Tschoudy will be found in any edition of L’Étoile Flamboyante, which appeared originally in 1766. The full title is Catéchisme ou Instruction pour le Grade d’Adepte, ou Apprenti Philosophe Sublime et Inconnu. There is no evidence that a Hermetic Degree under this particular title was ever in activity, though it may have existed on paper. There is no evidence also in support of Éliphas Lévi’s statement that the Catechism was founded on an unique MS. of Paracelsus in the Vatican Library. This notwithstanding, it is a most interesting work—alike from the Hermetic and Masonic point of view. A translation in full of the Hermetic part is included in my edition of The Hermetic and Alchemical Writings of Paracelsus, 2 vols., 1894 ; vol. i, pp. 289-305. The Masonic part is collated and summarised in my Secret Tradition in Freemasonry, 2 vols., 1911; vol. ii, pp. 65-69. The Société Alchimique de France has no Masonic connections; its official organ—suspended during the War—is called Les Nouveaux Horizons and its director or president, F. Jollivet Castellot, is the author of Comment on Devient Alchimiste, Paris, 1897. There was not much Alchemy to be found of recent years in the official organ, and the treatise just mentioned is a little fantastic, as indeed its title suggests.

The New Encyclopædia of Freemasonry. Vol. I pp. 12–17. 1970