The Spiritual Alchemy of Thomas Vaughan

Alchemy is the one field of past human endeavor which it is almost impossible even to begin to understand. No two modern authors agree about it and no two alchemists agree with each other. Thomas Vaughan is supposed to be the leading “spiritual alchemist” of the entire literature, and yet the majority of modern writers on alchemy deny flatly that such a thing as spiritual alchemy ever existed.

Most of the books which do purport to explain the mysteries of spiritual alchemy are suspect. Their scholarship is shoddy or invented or nonexistent, their logic is cracked if not paranoid. Most of them occupy the far outer reaches of occultism, along with theories that the works of Shakespeare were written by a committee of mahatmas on Atlantis, or that the equations which disprove Einstein are embodied in the dimensions of the Great Pyramid. Such books are amusing reading if not too barbarously written — Ignatius Donnelly, for instance, is one of America’s most entertaining authors. But Thomas Vaughan is far from being light bedside reading and equally far from being a barbarous writer. He is certainly in deadly earnest about something, and he is almost as beautiful a writer as his brother Henry, one of the greatest poets of the language. Even to begin to comprehend what he is in earnest about requires an extraordinary effort of imaginative projection into a universe of discourse utterly unlike anything to be found, at least in respectable intellectual circles, today.

As a guide, A.E. Waite is not much help. His The Secret Tradition in Alchemy is an exasperating, elusive book. It is nothing to put in the hands of a novice, for it itself requires an explanation which, like everything else connected with alchemy, it would seem, is intrinsically implausible.

Waite belonged to a number of “secret brotherhoods” and was the founder and leader of at least one such group. As an initiate into practically every organization of occultists of his day which was not patently lunatic, he was bound by all sorts of solemn vows and oaths of secrecy. His works and his autobiography make it sufficiently evident that he took these vows seriously indeed. He wrote a set of books, treating systematically and one by one the major cruxes or problems of what might be called the scholarship of the occult tradition — the Holy Grail legends, Freemasonry, Alchemy, Rosicrucianism, the Tarot cards, Ritual Magic, the Kabbalah; and a number of important personages in the history of the occult, Raymond Lull, St. Martin, Eliphas Levi.

With the sole exception of The Holy Kabbalah where for once Waite’s language is very thinly veiled — perhaps for the reason that what he was talking about is sufficiently well known at least to Jewish scholarship — all these books purport to deny what Waite is in actual fact, not so much proving, as quietly exposing to those who have eyes to see. Until you catch on, this device can be, to put it mildly, misleading, and it never ceases to be exasperating. The Secret Tradition in Alchemy claims to deny and disprove the existence of a secret tradition. It does nothing of the sort. If that had been Waite’s real end in view, he would never had written the book, it would have been, in his language, a “work of supererogation.” However, it is certainly misleading. It misled Carl Jung.

For years Jung, in all his voluminous writings about alchemy, ignored Waite. In volume XII of The Collected Works, published in the Bollingen Series, where all of Jung’s writings on alchemy are gathered up, The Works of Thomas Vaughan is not mentioned, nor are the original editions under his own name or Eugenius Philalethes. The Secret Tradition appears at last, along with four other alchemical works by Waite, including the alchemical works of E. Kelley, and the original editions of Eirenaeus Philalethes — works important almost exclusively because of the connection with certain controversies around Thomas Vaughan. This in a bibliography of 540 books and 58 manuscripts. In the essay “Religious Ideas in Alchemy,” the only place Jung mentions Waite by name, he attacks him precisely at a point (the Lapis-Christus parallel) where Waite is covering his tracks.

Why no mention at all of Vaughan? In the whole history of alchemy, this is the one author who really, indisputably, gives away the show, divulges the secret. One would think that Vaughan would have been Jung’s favorite author, outranking even Rider Haggard and the Kalevala. To believe that Jung’s silence is deliberate and designed, in his turn, to cover his tracks, is to tempt oneself with the little paranoias of the crackpots who beset this subject enough as it is. Still, it is surely very mystifying.

Alchemy as a subject is not just mystifying, it is intrinsically improbable. It is as though a textbook of chemistry, another of mining engineering, another of gymnastics and breathing exercises, another of pharmacology, several sex manuals, and many treatises of transcendental mysticism had been torn to pieces and not just mixed up together, but fused into a totally new chemical compound of thought. In fact it is not just “as though,” looked at from the viewpoint of twentieth-century scientific worldview, this is pretty much what alchemy is — the humorous description is close to exact.

There is no use trying to explain Thomas Vaughan in our terms; he is inexplicable, and can only be appreciated with the subconscious, like a dream or a surrealist poem. He, and many other alchemists, were in fact favorite reading matter of the surrealists, who appreciated them for their resonance rather than their significant meaning. There is a good deal more to Vaughan than that, and a good deal more than can be comprehended under the terms of Jungian integration of the personality. Carl Jung’s extensive writings on alchemy are illuminating to anyone coming fresh to the subject, but they are inadequate. The flaw in Jung’s exposition is his assumption that the alchemists are not talking about anything real. “Man projects himself into his ignorance.” A pseudo-science that concerns itself entirely with matters and procedures that have no objective reality must of necessity be really concerned with the unconscious of its devotees. This interpretation differs little from that of AndrĂ© Breton or Eugene Jolas, and as a matter of fact the Jungians and the surrealists greatly influenced each other’s notions about alchemy.

However, as long as alchemy is considered only a symbolic dramatization of the unconscious, works like Thomas Vaughan’s little tracts will have only a fortuitous, alogical coherence, the coherence of dream, and will have only evocative rather than communicative meanings to offer us. Not only does Vaughan mean something, but his works form a kind of spiritual autobiography which comes to its climax in one of the more pathetic tragedies of English literature. Waite knew this, though he made no comment, he printed those poignant fragments from the notebooks which tell the story for those who can understand.

Nor is there any point in trying to explain Vaughan in an exegetical way, such an exegesis would only sound crazy to the uninitiated. Since all other alchemical works in Europe are far more “in code” than Vaughan’s — which, as I said, really give the show away — I think it is best to lay the whole problem aside and turn to a place where these matters are all made quite explicit. Theoretically this should be India. I think it highly likely that alchemy did arise in India sometime before the appearance of systematized Tantric Buddhism in which it plays an important role. Yogic practices which are assumed into alchemy go back to the beginning of civilized life in the sub-continent. The seal from Mohenjo-Daro of the man in the lotus position, rapt in trance, with an erect penis, might well come from Woodroffe’s Serpent Power or serve as a woodcut illustration for Ko Hung, the greatest of the Chinese alchemists. However, the most extensive work on this subject is still P.C. Ray’s A History of Hindu Chemistry, published in two volumes in 1904 and 1925. Not only is it out of date but it is curiously exasperating in its ethnocentric conceit — as well as being quite unreliable as to dates. My objection to Indian writing in this field is the same as that of the Chinese critics of the T’ang Dynasty who concerned themselves with it. It is all so vague, full of shifting amorphous symbols, and impossible to date. So it is to Chinese alchemy I will turn to try to convey to you what a seventeenth-century Welsh mystic and poet and alchemist is talking about. Here we will be dealing with clear statements and definite dates and in all the body of alchemical literature such conveniences exist nowhere else.

The earliest sure date in Western alchemy is the treatise of Bolos of Mendes, the pseudo-Democritus, who wrote in the second century B.C. This survives only in Syriac, one of the clearer statements being, “The pledge has been imposed on us to expose nothing clearly to anyone.” Next comes the collection of magical papyri in Leyden, with which are associated a number of tracts of what might be called proto-alchemy. Then come the miscellaneous Greek chemical writings contained in a manuscript collection in the library of St. Mark’s. With few exceptions all of these deal exclusively with the adulteration of metals and the fabrication of false jewelry. However, they are couched in a special language of mystification. Furthermore, they and later documents like them are associated physically with the various tractates of the Hermetic literature. No one has ever given a satisfactory explanation of why these recipe books in the art of fraud should have been grouped by Byzantine and late Egyptian librarians and copyists with that corpus of Gnostic, Neo-Pythagorean and Neo-Platonic mysticism.

Flinders Petrie, to the scandal of his scholarly colleagues, dated the formation of the Hermetic tradition to Persian Egypt. There is, in fact, much to be said for this unorthodox opinion, but the works of “Hermes Trismegistus” begin to appear in European speculation in the late Middle Ages, and the originals are assumed to date from the first three centuries of the Christian Era. It is remarkable that, although medieval alchemists constantly refer to “Hermes,” they show no knowledge of the mystical and philosophical tractates. However, I do believe that Gnosticism, and even the specific notions of Jewish Kabbalism, arose first in Persian and Hellenistic Egypt, when that country was a melting pot of speculations, cults and mysteries from all over the civilized world — including, at second or third hand, India and China.

The earliest appearance of alchemical, or rather proto-alchemical ideas in China are considerably earlier. The Shan Hai Ching, the Classic of Mountains and Rivers, in a passage which may date from the fifth century B.C. mentions six wu, shamans, who carry the corpse of the man-eating dragon Cha-Yu and have in their hands the death-banishing drugs which drive him away. Si Huang Ti, the Ch’in emperor, sends an expedition out to sea to search for the mystical isles where beautiful wu girls guarded the medicines of immortality. The greatest of Chinese historians, Ssu-ma Ch’ien (B.C. 145-79), tells anecdotes of the quest of emperors for the elixir of life in the Ch’in Dynasty (B.C. 221-207), and a long story of the Han emperor, Wu Ti (B.C. 140-87) and his many dealings with alchemists. Prompted by his chief alchemist Lao Shao Chun, this emperor established a regular budget for alchemical researches.

Many Han, and reputedly earlier, works of alchemy survived into T’ang times — the eighth century AD — and were subject to extensive commentary. However, in the Sung Dynasty, the tenth to thirteenth centuries, all these which revealed any of the sexual techniques for attaining trance and longevity were purged from the canon of Taoist texts and survived from then on only clandestinely and in Japan.

T’ang intercourse with Persia and Inner Asia led to a proliferation of popular alchemy. Ch’ang An, the capital, swarmed with alchemists and magicians, along with Nestorian monks and shamans from Siberia. Li Mi-li, a Persian alchemist, after a period at the T’ang court, crossed over to Japan and was a factor in the civilizing activities of the court at Nara. It is in Japan that the largest collection of early texts of explicitly sexual yogic-alchemical practices survives today, although there are certainly plenty of late and more popular treatises of this sort to be found now in China.

During the T’ang period Buddhist monks visiting India were on the lookout for alchemists, and the famous traveler Hsuan-ch’ao, under instructions of the Chinese court, sought out the leading Indian alchemist and persuaded him to visit China. I give all these facts simply to show that there was a great deal of alchemy coming and going, beginning sometime prior to the third century before Christ.

Chinese lists of metals and inorganic substances with typical alchemical parallels or synonyms and correlations with parts of the body and the constellations date back to at least the fifth century, possibly to Tso Yuan in the fourth century B.C., and include quite sophisticated substances — arsenic, sulfide, sulfur, arsenious acid, mercuric sulfide, mercury, sal ammoniac, alum, diamonds, lodestones and other metals and their compounds. Mineral acids are described by the earliest Chinese travelers to India. Paraphrases of no crucial importance of passages from the Indian alchemist and Tantric philosopher Nagarjuna (second century A.D.) occur in the writings of the founder of Neo-Taoist science and of fully developed spiritual alchemy, Ko Hung of the fourth century.

The illustrations of which Carl Jung makes so much in his Secret of the Golden Flower are in fact illustrations for Ko’s Pao P’u Tzu. They were lifted from a nineteenth-century edition of his work and used by a syncretistic slum sect, of the type of our Holiness churches, Jehovah’s Witnesses or the I Ams, without any understanding of their original significance. The most important illustration of all does not appear in Jung’s book — it is a nude figure of a man in a position of meditation. In his body, corresponding in place to the major autonomic nervous system plexuses, are the various instruments of alchemy — retort, furnace and so on. This one illustration answers all the disputed questions, once and for all.

By the early Sung period Chinese alchemy was very highly developed on both fronts. Yogic practices, that is, autonomic nervous-system gymnastics, sexual techniques and methods of achieving several kinds of trance, were as advanced as any to be found in India. “Several kinds of trance” needs explanation. It is only in recent years when neurological research has turned its attention to yoga that we have come to realize that, although these practices include auto-hypnosis, they are primarily concerned with the production of states, which, although entranced, are psychologically and even neurologically speaking exactly the opposite of the hypnotic state. At the same time alchemy by the twelfth century was busy with chemical phenomena that European science would not begin to explore until the end of the eighteenth century. Not only had they developed a crude but comprehensive chemistry of the common acids, bases, metallic salts, sulfur, invented gunpowder and Greek fire, burning glasses, artificial pearls, discovered the use of coal and petroleum (Peking man used coal), but they had occupied themselves quite intelligently with various mysteries and intriguing phenomena, luminescence, magnetism, production of a vacuum and so on. Exactly as in Europe most of this literature is at least quasi-Hermetic with mysterious and misleading terms for sulfur, magnetite, mercury and the rest.

As Neo-Taoism matured it produced hundreds of alchemical tracts and dozens of major expositions, an output which was to come to an end only in recent times. Even the great Sung Dynasty Neo-Confucian philosopher Chu Hsi wrote a short treatise on, and more or less against alchemy. After the eighth century Tantric Buddhism became common in China, and brought with it from India essentially the same esoteric practices, divorced however from any connection with transmutation of metals and given a Buddhist philosophical basis. The frontispiece to Woodroffe’s Serpent Power represents, in Tantric terms, the same method of yogic trance as do the illustrations to the Pao P’u Tzu.

Not only were the sexual techniques of alchemy assumed to develop internal processes which paralleled operations leading to the production of gold, the philosopher’s stone, or the growth of precious metals, cinnabar, and sulfur in the wombs of the uprising mountains. This idea can be found in Proclus in the West and continues to dominate medieval ideas until the translation of Avicenna’s Treatise Against Alchemy. The hierosgamos literally fecundates the earth. At the same time it achieves salvation for the soul.

Meditation; mental exercise which reduces the mind to a single point of awareness; breathing gymnastics which are a form of sustained hyperventilation; concentration of the mind on the major autonomic plexuses of the body, beginning with the lumbar or pubic plexus and rising to the head; orgasm without ejaculation — which by pressure of the heel on the perineal region is diverted into the bladder — all this by oneself or with a woman in the sexual act: is the entire literature of alchemy just a code communicating the secrets of this method of achieving trance and illumination?

No. Mary Anne Atwood, whose A Suggestive Inquiry into the Hermetic Mystery introduced alchemy into modern occultism in 1850, apparently thought this was the essence of the matter — but there is more to it than that. It is inconceivable that so immense a body of literature in so many languages over so long a period should be no more than an infinitely complicated rebus or cryptogram for a relatively simple discipline of the nervous system which can be revealed in a sentence and explained in a few pages.

Thomas Vaughan and his wife, his soror mystica, wrapped in entranced embrace at the Pinner of Wakefield, were, it is true, blundering into a region of revelation which they little understood and which, it would seem, eventually destroyed both of them. They were doing what Chinese adepts had done at least four hundred years before Christ and what others may have done in the Indus Valley three thousand years before. But they were also, and concomitantly, performing a chemical experiment, and they believed that neither could be successful without the other.

The doctrine of the interaction, and in most cases of the transcendental identity, of the macrocosm and the microcosm is as old as alchemy. It is alchemy. By manipulating oneself one achieves illumination. By simultaneous and parallel manipulation of physical reality, one achieves the philosopher’s stone, or potable gold, or whatever may be the chemical end in view. (The final achievement of the Great Work is always thought of as the term of an enormously long and difficult process — both chemically and, to coin a word, yogically.) But both processes are thought of as equally real. It is curious that the “objective” chemical operation has been proven to be illusory, while the psychological, or neurological one is as operable today as ever.

It may be objected that I have not explained in literal detail exactly what Thomas Vaughan and his wife were up to. The reason should be obvious. It killed them. Tantric and yogic works are full of warnings of the dangers of unguided autonomic nervous-system experiments. The neophyte is told again and again that he can learn only by submitting himself to the personal guidance of a teacher — guru. If not, he is warned that he will certainly come to a bad end. Furthermore, all texts all over the world of this type of mysticism point out that the precondition and essential foundation for all such practices is right living, the fulfillment of the commonplace injunctions of Buddhist, Christian or Chinese morality. Without this foundation the would-be adept is, as the experience of millenniums has shown, inevitably doomed.

I am well aware that following hard on the heels of Carl Jung have come a horde of apostles of irresponsible do-it-yourself ecstasy. Alchemy, Gnosticism, Tantrism are today part of a world characterized also by hallucinogenic drugs, folk songs, peace marches and black stockings. The great trouble with these people is that they confuse transcendence with sensationalism. Thomas Vaughan was a wise, disciplined and careful man, yet vision was too much for him. His work may be an inspiration but it is certainly also a warning.



This essay was first published as an Introduction to The Spiritual Alchemy of Thomas Vaughan (University Books, 1967). It was reprinted in With Eye and Ear (1970) and in World Outside the Window: The Selected Essays of Kenneth Rexroth (New Directions, 1987). Copyright 1967. Reproduced here by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp.

Other Rexroth Essays