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The Occult Roots of Science Isaac Newton • The Secret Mission of Freemasonry • Elias Ashmole and the Chain of Transmission • What Really Happens in Alchemy

IN 1543 NICHOLAS COPERNICUS published On the Revolution of the Celestial Bodies. His thesis was that the earth goes round the sun.

In 1590 Galileo Galilei performed experiments to show that the speed of falling objects is proportional to their density not their weight.

In 1609 Johannes Kepler, using the star maps of Tycho Brahe, calculated the three laws of the motions of planets.

In the 1670s Isaac Newton devised a unifying theory which tied all these discoveries together to describe the behaviour of the mechanical universe in three simple formulae.

Of course, it is too easy to see this as humanity’s triumphant rush into the modern world, emerging out of millennia of dark superstition and ignorance into the clear light of reason. But the initiate-priests of the Egyptian temples who knew that Sirius was a three-star system were well aware, thousands of years earlier, that the earth rotates around the Sun.

Moreover, as we are about to see, there is evidence to show that the heroes of modern science - the people of whom we would least expect it - were deeply immersed in the ancient wisdom.

Copernicus acknowledged that his ideas came from reading texts from the ancient world, and, when Kepler formulated his theories, he was conscious of the ancient wisdom working through him. In the foreword to the fifth volume of Harmonices Mundi (1619) he wrote, ‘Yes, I have stolen the golden vessels of the Egyptians to build a shrine to my God …’

Kepler was a life-long friend of Richard Beshold, who worked closely with Valentine Andrae and is often thought to have been his collaborator on the Rosicrucian Manifestoes.

Isaac Newton, born in Woolthorpe, Lincolnshire, never grew above five feet. He was strange, eccentric, sexually confused and lonely. Then in his schooldays he lodged with an apothecary who turned out to be an alchemical adept - and Newton’s path lay clear before him. Newton, no less than Cornelius Agrippa, tried to discover the complete system of the world.

Newton came to believe that the secrets of life are encoded in numerical form in the fabric of nature. He believed, too, that the clues for deciphering these codes are hidden in both numerical and linguistic codes in ancient books of wisdom, and in ancient buildings like the Great Pyramid and the Temple of Solomon. It was as if God had set humanity a test. Only when humanity had developed sufficient intelligence would it be able to recognize the presence of these codes and decode them. That time, thought Newton, had arrived.

In Newton’s view every part of the universe is intelligent. Even a stone is intelligent, and not just in the sense that it shows evidence of design. According to the ancient way of thinking that Newton subscribed to, it is not the case that animal, vegetable and mineral are totally distinct categories. They naturally overlap, intermingle and in special circumstances may morph one into the other. As Newton’s cabalistic contemporary Lady Conway put it, ‘There are transformations from one species to another, as from stone to earth, from earth to grass, from grass to sheep from sheep to human flesh, from human flesh to the lowest species of man, and from these to noblest spirits.’ In Newton’s view, then, everything in the universe strains towards intelligence. Inanimate matter strains towards vegetable life, which aspires to animal life by means of a rudimentary sensitivity. The higher animals have an instinct that is almost reasonable like the faculty in human beings, who wait to evolve into super-intelligent beings.

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Ptolemy’s map of the spheres is conventionally presented as having been superseded by the ideas of Copernicus, Galileo et al. but in fact it was and remains an accurate map of the spiritual dimension of the cosmos, a dimension which seemed more real to the ancients than the material cosmos.

And this universal aspiration to the super-intelligent looks to the heavens as the stoics had intimated. Isaac Luria, the sixteenth-century Cabalist put it like this: ‘There is nothing in the world, not even among silent things such as dust and stones that does not possess a certain life, spiritual nature, a particular planet and its perfect form in the heavens.’ Luria was talking about the intelligence in a seed that responds to the intelligent intention in the sun’s light. The ancient esoteric tradition did not suppose that all the information needed for a seed’s growth into a plant is contained in the seed. Growth is a process resulting from the intelligence in the seed interacting with the intelligence in the greater cosmos surrounding it.

We know from John Maynard Keynes’s investigation into the occult dimensions of Newton’s world-view that these schools of thought fascinated him. Newton asked himself whether it was possible to discern different intelligences, perhaps even distinct principles with distinct centres of consciousness behind the material surface of things. This is not to say that he ever saw these principles as angels sitting on clouds or visualized them in any naively anthropomorphic way - but neither did he see them as being completely impersonal, let alone as pure abstractions. He called them ‘Intelligencers’ to imply volition.

AS WE HAVE SEEN, ALL ESOTERICISTS are especially interested in the interface between the animal and vegetable on the one hand and in the interface between the vegetable and the mineral on the other. In the esoteric view this is the key to understanding the secrets of nature and manipulating them. The vegetable is the intermediary between thought and matter. It may be called the gateway between the worlds.

To help us understand why anyone might believe this, we should perhaps remind ourselves of the mind-before-matter account of the creation given in the early chapters of this book. If you believe that the world is formed by intelligence, by mind, you have to explain how the immaterial forms the material. This has traditionally - in all the world’s ancient cultures - been seen in terms of a series of emanations of mind, initially too ethereal for any form of sensory perception - finer even than light. It was from these ethereal emanations that matter was eventually precipitated.

This ethereal dimension, then, lay and continues to lie between mind - the animal dimension - and matter. Hence the traditional gradation: animal, vegetable, mineral.

Mind could not - and cannot - create or order matter directly, but only through the medium of the vegetative dimension. The mineral dimension of the cosmos, as it were, grows out of this vegetative dimension. Something crucial for practical occultists flows out of this. What Paracelsus called the ens vegetalis is malleable by mind, and because the mineral dimension grows out of this vegetative dimension, it is possible to exercise a power of mind over matter via this medium.

Newton’s name for this subtle medium, which may be used by mind to reorganize the cosmos, is the sal nitrum. In his accounts of his experiments he describes how he has conducted tests in order to see how the sal nitrum may be used to make metals come alive. These notes are an account of a real alchemist at work. Newton saw the sal nitrum circulating from the stars to the depths of the earth, investing it with life, routinely with plant life but in certain special circumstances giving life to metals. It is with growing excitement that he describes metal compounds coming to life in nitrate solutions and growing like plants. This ‘vegetation of metals’ confirmed him in his conviction that the universe is alive, and in his private papers he used the notion of the sal nitrum to help explain the effects of gravity.

WHEN WE PEER INTO THE HIDDEN LIVES of the heroes of science, the people who forged the mechanical world-view and made the great leaps forward in technology that have made our lives so much safer, easier and more pleasant, we often find they are deeply immersed in esoteric thought - particularly alchemy.

We might also consider the lesser but related paradox that many of the world’s most notorious occultists and outlandish visionaries were also in their own way practically minded men, often responsible for smaller but nevertheless significant inventions.

Looking at both groups together, it is difficult to see a clear distinction between scientists and occultists, even as we move into modern times. Rather there is a spectrum in which the individual is a bit of both, albeit to varying degrees.

Paracelsus, perhaps the most revered of occultists, revolutionized medicine by introducing the experimental method. He was also the first to isolate and name zinc, made great breakthroughs in the importance to medicine of hygiene and also was the first to formulate principles which would come to underlie homeopathy.

Giordano Bruno is a great hero of science because he was burned at the stake in 1600 for insisting that the solar system is heliocentric. But as we have already seen, this was because he believed fervently in the ancient wisdom of the Egyptians. He believed that the earth goes round the sun because, in the first instance, so too did the initiate priests of the ancient world.

Robert Fludd, the occult author and defender of the Rosicrucians, also invented the barometer.

Jan Baptiste van Helmont, the Flemish alchemist, was important in the secret societies for reintroducing into Western esotericism ideas of reincarnation - which he called ‘the revolution of humane souls’. He also separated gases in the course of his alchemical experiments, coined the word ‘gas’, and in the course of experiments on the healing powers of magnets, coined the word ‘electricity’.

Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, the German mathematician, was Newton’s rival in the devising of the calculus. In Leibniz’s case his discoveries arose out of fascination with cabalistic number mysticism which he shared with his close friend, the Jesuit scholar of the occult Athanasius Kircher. In 1687 Kircher, an alchemical student of the properties of the vegetable dimension, resurrected a rose from its ashes in front of the Queen of Sweden. Leibniz himself has also provided us with the most detailed and credible account of the alchemical transformation of base metals into gold.

The Royal Society was the great intellectual engine of modern science and technological invention. Among Newton’s contemporaries, Sir Robert Moray published the world’s first ever scientific journal, Philosophical Transactions - and was a fervent researcher into Rosicrucian teaching. The strange monk-like figure of Robert Boyle, whose law of thermodynamics paved the way for the internal combustion engine, was a practising alchemist. In his youth he wrote of having been initiated into an ‘invisible college’. Also practising alchemists were Robert Hooke, inventor of the microscope, and William Harvey, discoverer of the circulation of the blood.

Descartes, who fathered rationalism in the mid-seventeenth century, spent a considerable amount of time trying to track down the Rosicrucians and in researching their philosophy. He rediscovered the ancient, esoteric idea of the pineal gland as the gateway to consciousness, the inner eye, and his philosophical breakthrough came to him all of a piece while in a visionary state. His most famous dictum may be seen as a recasting of the Rosicrucian teaching intended to help foster the evolution of an independent, intellectual faculty: I must think in order to be.

Frontispiece, designed by John Evelyn, to the official history of the Royal Society, published in 1667. Francis Bacon is depicted as the founding father. He sits under the wing of an angel in a way that echoes the closing phrase of the Fama Fraternitatis of the Rosicrucians.

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Blaise Pascal, one of the great mathematicians of his day and an eminent philosopher, was discovered after his death to have sewn into his cloak a piece of paper on which was written: ‘The year of grace 1654, Monday 23 November, day of St Clement, Pope and Martyr. From about half-past ten in the evening until about half-past twelve at night, FIRE.’ Pascal achieved the illumination that the monks of Mount Athos sought.

In 1726 Jonathan Swift in Gulliver’s Travels predicted the existence and orbital periods of the two moons of Mars, which were not discovered by astronomers using telescopes until 1877. The astronomer, who then saw how accurate Swift had been, named the moons Phobos and Deimos - fear and terror - so awestruck was he by Swift’s evident supernatural powers.

Emmanuel Swedenborg, the great eighteenth-century Swedish visionary, wrote detailed accounts of his journeys into the spirit worlds. His reports of what the disembodied beings he met there told him inspired the esoteric Freemasonry of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. He was also the first to discover the cerebral cortex and the ductless glands, and also engineered what is still the largest dry dock in the world.

As we have already seen, Charles Darwin attended séances. He may have had the opportunity to learn the esoteric doctrine of the evolution from fish to amphibian to land animal to human from his close association with Max Müller, early translator of sacred Sanskrit texts.

Nicholas Tesla, recently described by a historian of science as ‘the ultimate visionary crank’, was a Serbian Croat who became a naturalized American. There he patented some seven hundred inventions including fluorescent lights and the Tesla coil that generates an alternating current. Like Newton’s most important breakthroughs, this last arose out of his belief in an etheric dimension between the mental and physical planes.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries many leading scientists thought it worthwhile to pursue a scientific approach to occult phenomena, believing that it would ultimately be possible to measure and predict occult forces such as etheric currents that seemed only a shade more elusive than electromagnetism, sound waves or x-rays. Thomas Edison, inventor of the phonograph and therefore the godfather of all recorded sound, and Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of the telephone, both supposed that psychic phenomena were perfectly respectable areas of research for science, involving themselves in esoteric Freemasonry and theosophy. Edison tried to make a radio that would tune into the spirit worlds. Their great scientific discoveries arose out of this research into the supernatural. Even the television was invented as a result of trying to capture psychic influences on gases fluctuating in front of a cathode ray tube.

LOOKING FOR CLUES ON HOW BEST TO understand this strange vision of the occult and the scientific joined at the hip, we will return to the great genius behind the scientific revolution, Francis Bacon.

As we saw, Francis Bacon’s great discovery was that if you view the objects of sense experience as objectively as possible, stripping out all preconceptions and notions that all of it was meant to be, then new patterns emerge beyond the ones traced by priests and other spiritual leaders. You can use these new patterns to predict and manipulate events.

Historians of the philosophy of science see this as the great beginning, the moment when inductive reasoning became a part of humanity’s approach to the world. From this moment flowed the scientific revolution and the whole industrial and technological transformation of the world.

However, if you look more deeply into Bacon’s account of the process of scientific discovery, it appears less straightforward and, initially at least, rather mysterious.

‘Nature is a labyrinth,’ he said, ‘in which the very haste you move with will make you lose your way.’ Bacon was writing as if the scientist plays a game of chess with nature. In order to get answers, he must first put nature in check. It’s as if nature needs to be tricked into giving away her secrets, because nature is inherently tricky herself. As if she means to deceive.

Today’s historians of science try to present Bacon as a thorough-going materialist, but this is wishful thinking. Although he believed that interesting new results would emerge if you looked at sense data as if they were not infused with meaning, this is not what he believed to be the case. We know, for example, that he believed in what he called ‘astrologica sana’, which is to say receiving the magical celestial influences into the spirit in the way that the Renaissance magus Pico della Mirandola had recommended. Bacon also believed in the same ethereal intermediary between spirit and matter as Newton, and that this same intermediary existed in humans who are ‘inclosed in a thicker body, as Ayrein Snow or Froath’ - what he called the ‘Aetheric body’.

Bacon said: ‘It is no less true in this human kingdom of knowledge, than in God’s kingdom of heaven that no man shall enter into it “except he become first as a little child”.’ This seems to be saying that a different and child-like state of mind needs to be reached first in order for higher knowledge to be reached. Paracelsus had said something similar, writing of the process of experimentation also using biblical phrasing: ‘Only he who desires with his whole heart will find and to him only who knocks vehemently shall the door be opened.’

The implication is that higher knowledge of the world comes from altered states of consciousness. Working in the same circles as Bacon and Newton, Jan Baptiste van Helmont wrote: ‘There is a book inside us, written by the finger of God, through which we may read all things.’ Michael Maier, who wrote about the Rosicrucians as if from the inside and published some of the most beautiful alchemical literature, said: ‘To drink the interior life in a long draft is to see the higher life. He who discovers the interior, discovers what is in space.’ In all these sayings there is a clear implication that the key to scientific discovery somehow lies within.

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Rosslyn Chapel, near Edinburgh. The Scottish roots of Freemasonry were deliberately covered up in the eighteenth century because they had become entangled with the Stuart dynasty, supporting its claims to the throne. Rosslyn Chapel, built in the fifteenth century by William Sinclair, the first Earl of Caithness, incorporated replicas of the twin pillars of Solomon’s Temple - Jakim and Boaz - in a way that anticipated every Masonic lodge in the world. A carving on the lower frame of the window in the south-west corner of the chapel seems to be of a Freemasonic First Degree. Scottish lodges of some description undoubtedly existed at least a hundred years before the recorded English ones.

We’ve seen that throughout history small groups have worked themselves into altered states. Is the suggestion by Bacon and his followers that the scientist needs somehow to tune himself to the etheric or vegetable dimension? That if you can somehow work yourself into the dimension of interweaving forms, you are on your way to understanding the secrets of nature?

We have seen that great scientific geniuses, the founders of the modern age, have tended to be fascinated by ideas of ancient wisdom and altered states. Could it be that it is not so much that genius is next to madness but that genius is next to the altered states brought on by esoteric training?

IF THE HEROES OF THE ROSICRUCIANS - Dee and Paracelsus - were wild and strange, the magi of the next epoch came on like respectable businessmen.

Freemasonry has always presented a straight face to the world. The Anglo-Saxon lodges in particular have been coy about their esoteric origins. The notion that Freemasons at sufficiently high levels of initiation are taught the secret doctrine and history of the world outlined in this book might seem implausible, even to many Freemasons.

In Freemasonic lore the society’s roots may be traced back to the building of Solomon’s Temple by Hiram Abiff, the suppression of the Knights Templar, and to secretive guilds of craftsmen such as the Compagnons Du Devoir, the Children of Father Soubise and the Children of Father Jacques.

An often overlooked influence on the formation of secret societies, especially Freemasonry, is the Co-fraternities. Founded in the fifteenth century, they were originally lay brotherhoods affiliated to monasteries. The brothers pursued the spiritual life while also working in the community, organizing charities, commissioning art and leading processions on holy days. Their secrecy was originally designed to ensure that charitable works remained anonymous, but it gave rise to rumours of robes, secret rituals and initiates. In France in the fifteenth century these Co-fraternities, which had been absorbing ideas from Joachim and the Cathars, were eventually driven underground.

But modern ‘speculative’ Freemasonry is dated by its official historians to the seventeenth century.

It’s sometimes claimed that the first recorded case of initiation into Freemasonry was that in 1646 of the celebrated antiquary and collector, and founder member of the Royal Society, Elias Ashmole. He was certainly one of the earlier English Freemasons and very influential.

Born in 1617, the son of a sadler, Elias Ashmole qualified as a lawyer, and became a soldier and a civil servant. He was restless collector of curios. The Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, built around his collection, was the first public museum. He was also a man of boundless intellectual curiosity. In 1651 he met an older man, William Backhouse, owner of a manor house called Swallowfield. This turned out to have an extraordinary long gallery, a treasure house of ‘Inventions and Rarities’, including rare alchemical manuscripts. Backhouse was evidently a man much after Ashmole’s heart, and Ashmole’s diaries reveal how Backhouse invited him to become his son.

By this, we learn, Backhouse meant that he intended to adopt him as his successor and heir. Before he died, he promised, he would pass on to Ashmole the ultimate secret of alchemy, the true matter of the Philosopher’s Stone, so that Ashmole could carry forward a secret tradition that dated back to the time of Hermes Trismegistus. Over the next two years Backhouse’s teaching of the eager Ashmole was slow and apparently hesitant. But then in May 1653 the younger man recorded ‘my father Backhouse lying sick in Fleet streete over against St Dunstans Church, and not knowing whether he should live or dye, about eleven o clock, told me in S.lables the true Matter of the Philosophers Stone which he bequeathed to me as a Legacy’.

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Illustration to Theatrum Chemicum Britannicum, an anthology collected by Elias Ashmole.

Ashmole’s is an unusually clear and unambiguous account of the passing down of secret knowledge, but there is other evidence, too, hints and allusions of occult activity among the intellectual elite. The second grand master of the London Lodge was John Théophile Desaguliers, a follower of Isaac Newton who likewise spent many years poring over alchemical manuscripts.

The symbolism of Freemasonry as it was formulated in this period is shot through with alchemical motifs from the central notion of the Work to the ubiquitous cornerstone and philosopher’s stone - ASHLAR - to the compasses and l’equerre.

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Depiction of the English king, Charles I in 1649 awaiting execution. This event was predicted with astonishing accuracy by the French prophet and astrologer Michel de Nostradamus in 1555. As David Ovason, the most learned of the Nostradamus scholars, has pointed out, his line ‘CHera pAR LorS, Le ROY’ is cabalistic code for ‘Charls Le Roy’, so that the apparently bland line ‘It will come about that the King’ actually contains a prediction of the name of the man who, as parts of the quatrain make clear, was to be ‘kept in a fortress by the Thames’ and be ‘seen in his shirt’. Charles made a point of wearing two shirts, as he stepped outside on to the executioner’s platform, so that he would not shiver from the cold and appear fearful.

THE TIME HAS FINALLY COME TO ASK

What exactly is alchemy?

Alchemy is very old. Ancient Egyptian texts talk of techniques of distillation and metallurgy as mystical processes. Greek myths such as the quest for the Golden Fleece can be seen to have an alchemical layer of meaning, and Fludd, Boehme and others have interpreted Genesis in the same alchemical terms.

A quick survey of alchemical texts ancient and modern shows that alchemy, like the Cabala, is a very broad church. If there is one great mysterious ‘Work’, it is approached via a remarkable variety of codes and symbols. In some cases the Work involves Sulphur, Mercury and Salt, in others roses, stars, the philosopher’s stone, salamanders, toads, crows, nets, the marriage bed, and astrological symbols such as the fish and the lion.

There are obvious geographical variations. Chinese alchemy seems less about the quest for gold and more about a quest for the elixir of life, for longevity, even immortality. Alchemy also seems to change through the ages. In the third century the alchemist Zozimos wrote that ‘the symbol of the chymic art - gold - comes forth from creation for those who rescue and purify the divine soul chained in the elements’. In early Arab texts the Work involves manipulations of these same Four Elements, but in European alchemy, rooted in the Middle Ages and flowering in the seventeenth century, a mysterious fifth element, the Quintessence, comes to the fore.

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Illustration to Milton’s Paradise Lost. Milton often wrote about the way his muse dictated poetry to him. It is tempting to modern sensibility to see this as mere metaphor. But Milton’s journals also show how much he was influenced by Boehme in his descriptions of Paradise and by Fludd in his cosmology. Milton’s writings also make it clear that he was used to encounters with disembodied beings: ‘If answerable style I can obtain Of my Celestial Patroness, who deigns Her nightly visitation unexplored; or inspires Easy my unpremeditated verse’.

If we begin to look for unifying principles, we can see immediately that there are prescribed lengths of time or numbers of repetitions for the various operations, the distilling, the applying of gentle heat and so on.

There are obvious parallels, then, with meditative practice and this suggests immediately that these alchemical terms may be descriptions of subjective states of consciousness rather than the sort of chemical operations that might be performed in a laboratory.

Tying in with this we have also seen repeated suggestions, particularly from Rosicrucian sources, that these operations are often intended to have an effect during sleep and on the border between sleeping and waking. Could they be to do with visionary dreams or lucid dreaming? Or are they to do with the carrying over of elements of dream consciousness in waking consciousness?

There are many hints of a sexual element, too, from the recurring image of the Chemical Wedding to Paracelsus’s teasing references to the azoth. The Codex Veritatis in a commentary on the Song of Solomon advises, ‘Place the red man with his white woman in a red chamber, warmed to a constant temperature.’ Equally, Tantric texts equate alchemical Mercury with sperm.

There is a school of thought that interprets alchemical texts as manuals giving techniques to make the kundalini serpent rise up from the base of the spine through the chakras to light up the Third Eye.

Yet another school, inspired by Jung, sees alchemy as a kind of precursor of psychology. Jung wrote a study of the alchemist Gerard Dorn, making this case, and Dorn certainly lends himself to this interpretation as he is an overtly psychological kind of alchemist. ‘First transmute the earth of your body into water,’ he says. ‘This means your heart that is as hard as stone, material and lazy, must become subtle and vigilant.’ In Dorn we see both the practice of working on individual human faculties that we noted in Ramón Lull, and the combining of esoteric training with moral development that we saw earlier in esoteric Buddhism and the Cabala.

Alchemical-sexual practices certainly exist - we will look at these in Chapter 25. And there may well be alchemical texts which deal with the kundalini rising, but in my view this is not central to the golden age of alchemy that reached its peak with the Rosicrucians and the Freemasons.

Jung’s purely psychological alchemy is interesting in its way but it is totally uninteresting from an esoteric perspective, because it disregards notions of journeys into the spirit worlds and communication with disembodied beings.

The key to understanding alchemy surely lies in the surprising phenomena we have been following in this chapter. Bacon, Newton and the other Rosicrucian and Freemasonic adepts were interested in both direct personal experience and in scientific experiment. As idealists they were fascinated by what connects matter to mind, and like all esotericists they conceived of this subtle connection in terms of what Paracelsus called the ens vegetalis, or vegetable dimension.

Did it perhaps provoke them that the vegetable dimension seemed immeasurable, even undetectable by any scientific instrument? Maybe, but then perhaps what sustained them, what prompted them to explore further, was the belief that this vegetable dimension had apparently been experienced in all times and all places, and that there was an ancient authentic tradition of manipulating it to which many of the great geniuses of history had subscribed.

Roger Bacon, Francis Bacon, Isaac Newton and others had developed scientific, experimental procedure. They had tried to find universal laws to make sense of the world viewed as objectively as possible. Now they applied the same methodology to life viewed as subjectively as possible. The result was a science of spiritual experience, and this is what alchemy really is. The gold they experienced at the end of their experiments was a spiritual gold, an evolved form of consciousness that meant a mere metal bringing worldly wealth no longer interested them.

In the golden age of alchemy, Sulphur represents the animal dimension, Mercury is the vegetable dimension and Salt the material dimension. These dimensions are centred in different parts of the body, the animal down below in the sex organs, the vegetable in the solar plexus, and Salt in the head. Will and sexuality are seen as deeply intertwined in the esoteric philosophy. This is the Sulphurous part. Mercury, the vegetable part, is the realm of feeling. Salt is the precipitate of thinking.

In all alchemical texts Mercury is the mediator between Sulphur and Salt.

In the first stage of the process the vegetable dimension must be worked on to achieve the first stage of mystical experience, the entering of the Matrix, the sea of light that is the world between the worlds.

The second stage is what is sometimes called the Chemical Wedding, when soft, female Mercury makes love to hard, rigid, red Sulphur.

By meditating on images which inspire a loving feeling repeatedly and over long periods - it takes twenty-one days for any exercise to make a material change in human physiology - the candidate brings about a process of change which sinks down into the obstinate Will.

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The Alchemist by William Hogarth.

If we succeed in making our selfish, sexual desires into living, spiritual desires, then the bird of resurrection, the Phoenix, rises. If our heart is overtaken by these transformed energies then it becomes a centre of power. Anyone who has met a truly holy person will have felt the great power that a transformed heart radiates.

Love fascinated the alchemists of the golden age. They knew that the heart is an organ of perception. When we look at someone we love, we see things other people cannot see, and the initiate who has undergone alchemical transformation has made a conscious, willed decision to see the whole world in this way. An adept sees how the world really works in a way that is denied to the rest of us.

So if we persist with our own alchemical spiritual exercises, if we succeed in purifying the fragmentary material barrier between ourselves and the spirit worlds, as the French mystic St Martin urges, then our own powers of perception will improve. In the first instance, the spirit worlds will begin to shine through into our dreams, less chaotically than they routinely do and more meaningfully. The promptings of the spirits, first in the form of hunches or intuition, will also begin to invade our waking life. We will begin to detect the flow and operation of the deeper laws beneath the everyday surface of things.

In the specifically Christian alchemy of Ramón Lull and St Martin, for example, the Sun-spirit that transforms the human body into a radiant body of light is identified with the historical personage of Jesus Christ. In other traditions, though this historical identification may not be made, the same process is described. The Indian sage Ramalinga Swamigal wrote: ‘O God! You have shown me eternal love by bestowing on me the golden body. By merging with my heart, you have alchemized my body.’

These phenomena, reported in different cultures, show that the Third Eye is beginning to open.

It would be all too easy to interpret all this as some kind of fuzzy mysticism. But the stories about scientists like Pythagoras and Newton suggest that by means of these peculiar kinds of altered states they were able to discover new things about the world, to see its inner workings and understand patterns that are perhaps too complex or too large for the human mind to grasp with its everyday, commonsensical state of consciousness. Alchemy confers on its practitioners a supernatural intelligence.

A common word in alchemical texts is VITRIOL. This is an acronym for Visita Interiora Terrae Rectificando Invenies Occultum Lapidem. Visit the interior of the earth to find the secret stone.

When alchemical texts recommend visiting the interior of the earth, this is a way of talking about sinking down into one’s own body. Alchemy, then, is concerned with occult physiology. By acquiring a working knowledge of his own body’s physiology, the alchemist was able to gain a degree of control over it. Great alchemists like St Germain were said to be able to live as long as they wanted.

But on a more down-to-earth level alchemists were also able to advance science in practical ways. We have seen alchemists who have made contributions to the growth of modern medicine. In altered states of consciousness men like Paracelsus and van Helmont were able to solve medical problems and devise treatments that were beyond the understanding of the medical profession of the day. By going inside themselves, these initiates saw the Outworld with supernatural clarity. To put it in cabalistic terms, man is the synthesis of all the Holy Names. All knowledge is therefore contained inside ourselves if we learn how to read it. The Yoga Sutras of Pantanjali allude to travelling the heavens and shrinking to the size of the smallest particle as being among the powers that reward those who practise its arcane techniques. Indian adepts still talk of being able to travel to the far reaches of the cosmos and also to so concentrate their powers of perception that they see right down to the atomic level.

These are great siddhis, or ‘excellencies’. It was surely excellencies that enabled the initiate priests of antiquity to perceive the third star in the Sirius system, to understand the evolution of the species and to understand, too, the form and function of the pineal gland.

BUT IS IT POSSIBLE FOR US TO BELIEVE in the efficacy of such altered states today? Aren’t we more likely to see them as diminishing intelligence, making us less conscious, more likely to be deluded?

I offer one counter-example to the common-sense view, which was first pointed out to me by Graham Hancock while he was working on his breakthrough book on shamanism, Supernatural.

Each human cell has coiled inside it double-stranded ribbon only ten molecules wide but some six feet long which contains all the genetic information necessary for the construction of that person. Every living cell on the planet has a version of this ribbon, but the ones in human cells are the most complex, carrying a coded message of some three billion characters. These characters contain inherited instructions which enable the cells to organize themselves in the patterns that create each individual human being.

Scientists noticed that these billions of characters seem to have very complex patterns of relationships, a deep structure suggestive of a human language. This hunch was confirmed by statistical analysis. But it was the brilliant Cambridge biologist Francis Crick who cracked the code, discovering the double helix structure that won him and his colleague James Watson the Nobel Prize and launched modern, genetic medicine.

What is pertinent to the secret history is that, although in so far as I know Crick had no connections with the secret societies, he achieved his moment of inspiration and unlocked the structure of DNA while in an altered state brought about by taking LSD. As we have seen, hallucinogens have been used as part of techniques for achieving higher states of consciousness and grasping higher realities since the Mystery schools.

What is even more intriguing still is that later in life Crick published a book called Life Itself: Its Origin and Nature, in which he argued that the complex structure of DNA could not have come about by chance. Like an earlier Cambridge man, Isaac Newton, he believed that the cosmos had encoded deep within it messages about our - and its - origins that had been put there, so that we would be able to decode them when we had evolved sufficient intelligence.

WHAT IS THE MORAL OF THIS? AS THE Duchess in Alice in Wonderland will always ask.

What lies outside the collective is the realm of the demonic - but this realm is also the realm of the innovative, the evolutionary and that which addresses our deep and unquenchable need for the infinite. History shows that the people who have worked on the very boundaries of human intelligence have reached this place in altered states.

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