Why such overwhelming success around the theme of alchemy, an antiquated prescientific art of turning base into noble metal, lead into gold?
You may recall the first movie in the multibillion-dollar Harry Potter franchise: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s [Philosopher’s] Stone. The author, JK Rowling, had written the novel for her daughter while on welfare in Scotland. Crafting her first manuscript in coffee shops, Joanne barely got it published. However, once she did, the demand never stopped, and she soon became a billionaire, herself.
You may have come across Paulo Coelho’s novel, The Alchemist, which has sold over 65 million copies to date. Like JK Rowling, Paulo barely got his novel published. It then floundered. Convinced of its potential, Paulo got it republished. His book then went through the sky, being translated into over 70 languages.
In order to be able to answer the question (why?) above, we need to get a better understanding of the word alchemy and how it evolved.
Alchemy derives from an Arabic word refer to the black, fertile soil of the Nile River Valley. It harks back to ancient China, India and Greece, where philosophers sought a means of immortality, and experimented with metals and other substances to create the “Elixir of Life.”
During the Renaissance and European Enlightenment, many great philosophers and scientists made an intense study of alchemy, the list looking like a Who’s Who: Albertus Magus, Roger Bacon, Jacob Boehme, Paracelsus and Sir Isaac Newton.
Eventually, alchemy as it was popularly conceived developed into modern chemistry, thanks to Robert Boyle, John Dalton and Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier. The initial focus on inner processes to transform the base metals into gold shifted over to a preoccupation with molecules and atoms. Gradually the mystical element of the ancient art was lost.
Despite the emergence of Rational Empiricism, interest in magic and the miraculous survived well into the modern age and beyond. In the 19th Century, it was hypnotism, and in the 1960’s, it was the emergence of psychedelics where hippies could instantly witness a profound shift in their consciousness that undermined the materialistic paradigm.
With the digital revolution, people experienced the rise of the virtual domain, including augmented reality, with ubiquitous video and the ability to start a conversation with anyone anywhere in the world. Social networks developed that could bring people together in new ways to explore exotic interests. Thanks to Google and Wiki, all knowledge went online, including that of the occult.
With teenage suicide at an all-time high, youth now insist upon answers that incorporate their whole being. Robotics and artificial intelligence are not enough. People want meaning and purpose in their lives. Hence the interest in JK Rowling’s Harry Potter, as well as Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist, both of which powerfully speak of finding your True Self and fulfilling your ultimate potential.
Alchemy began to be relevant to in the last century thanks to the work of Carl Jung, who had studied under Sigmund Freud, only to break away. He was convinced that people are driven as much by their quest for God as by sex and power. Jung took dream interpretation to a whole new level, exploring the innermost psyches of thousands of patients.
Jung found a strange resonance between his own process of unraveling the chemistry of the mind, and the efforts of ancient alchemists to transform a substance. He developed a keen interest in both astrology and alchemy. Jung came to the conclusion that the alchemists used their obsession with turning metal into gold as a cover for their true passion of becoming divine.
Jung looked at various fairy tales and myths and found that they depicted the quest for The Self, which includes and transcends you as an individual. He pioneered terms like The Shadow and The Collective Unconscious.
When we own all of our projections, and become increasingly conscious of even our unconscious processes, we can breakthrough to enlightenment.
It might be helpful to consider the life of Jesus Christ, as recorded in the Gospel of John. Jesus began His ministry with a very practical miracle that He demonstrated during a wedding feast in Cana of Galilee. The celebration had gone on for days, and the village family was running out of wine. Jesus’ mother, Mary, asked him to do something.
Jesus instructed a couple of servants to pour a large amount of water into a huge cistern, and then carry it over to the master of ceremonies. The servants dipped into the water, only to discover it had turned into wine… not just any wine, but an ancient vintage. Everyone was delighted, but Mary and Jesus knew it to be a miracle from God.
Here we have the idea of transforming a basic element, H2O, into wine, the fermented juice of grapes. Both water and wine are liquids, but wine is taken from the juice of a plant, and then put through an elaborate process of fermentation. There was no reasonable explanation as to how mere water could suddenly become gourmet wine.
Later in John’s Gospel, Jesus is celebrating the Passover before the Passion and His untimely death on the cross. Jesus takes a goblet of wine, and passes it on to His disciples. He declares that this wine is His blood, which is being shed to forgive the nations. Of course, this saying shocks his followers, and they wonder what He has in mind.
Here we have the fermented fruit of grapes becoming human blood, or a jump from plant life to human life. This is a much more shocking miracle, something that would be repelling to most people. The Church has argued for centuries as to whether this transformation was symbolic or literal.
The Passover celebration eventually became the focus of the Roman Catholic Church in the daily celebration of the Mass. Since Jesus was now recognized as divine, drinking His blood could, not only secure our forgiveness, but we could, in a sense, by imbibing the Real Presence. We could become Christ, become truly divine.
Alchemy emerged with an understanding that a transmutation in substance was a metaphor for becoming God. If we have the divine nature within us in seed form, then it must eventually blossom within our lives under the crucible of experience. The Eastern Orthodox Church actually recognizes this process as divinization, becoming God.
Post-modern science has added a whole new dimension to this insight. Quantum physics took particle theory to an extreme, coming to the conclusion that even the heaviest, most solid looking object contains vast regions of empty space. When you observe the particle in an experiment, it momentarily appears, only to disappear into a wave. In other words, we create our reality in the very act of observation. Avant-garde physicists, such as John Wheeler, have maintained that we inhabit a participatory universe.
We create our reality in the very act of observation.
We thus find that the ancient art of alchemy is about transforming matter into spirit, or consciousness. There is only conscious awareness with an eternal dance of form. We are left with Energy, Information and Intelligence. All else is a play of form. We ARE that Energy, Information and Intelligence.
Paulo Coelho’s hero, the Andalusian shepherd boy, Santiago, had to travel all the way to Egypt and meet the Alchemist before he could find his Personal Legend. He had ignored a hidden gift within him all the time, which he was destined to share with all humanity. It took the journey of a lifetime to prepare him for this realization of the genius already lying within.
We, also, have a profound mission to fulfill, but it takes a lifetime of experience to fully realize our mission. Like Jesus Christ, you are fully human and fully divine. Only as you tune into your divinity and start serving the world will you become the man or woman you have always wanted to be.