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The Secret Language of the Alchemists 

Andrea De Pascalis




Reading a book about alchemy for the first time and trying to understand its exact meaning represents a frustrating experience: enigmas, discrepancies, allegories, symbols, interruptions and sudden reserves give the reader the impression to be a victim of an extraordinary hoax. It could not be otherwise, when a recipe begins like this: “To extract the ass’s soul in twenty days: take a jackass or a she-ass, beat them strongly until no dregs come out anymore, then take half a wise armed soldier and stir them in the pot…”. Or: “Take the quantity you want of something unknown…”. In the famous Turba philosophorum some passages are written in this rather irritating style:

“You speak very obscurely and too much. But I want to indicate Matter, without so many obscure speeches. I command you, Sons of the Doctrine: freeze the argentum vivum. Out of several things, make two, three, and out of three, one. One with three is four. 4, 3, 2, 1, from 4 to 3 there is 1, from 3 to 4 there is 1, so 1, 3 and 4. From 3 to 1 there is 2, from 2 to 3 there is 1, from 3 to 2 there is 1. 1, 2 and 3 and 1, 2 of 2 and 1, 1. So from 1 to 2, 1, 1. I have told you everything”. The alchemists left many thousands of books. It is absolutely reasonable that they loved to write and wished to be read, but they preferred not to be understood. This is because alchemy is a Sacred Art, it is the Secret of the Secrets, and as such, it must be protected from curiosity, unworthiness, and people who are not initiated. “Poor fool,” Artephius openly warns his reader, “are you really so ingenuous as to deceive yourself that we would disclose to you, openly and clearly, the biggest and most important secret? Are you really so ingenuous as to take our words literally? In good faith I say to you that whoever wants to explain, according to the most common and literal sense, what other philosophers wrote, he will get confused in a labyrinth from which he will never be able to free himself...” For the alchemic writer the aim is to explain although being silent, without exceeding the limits beyond which explanation becomes delation. Fulcanelli, a French alchemist of the 20th century, admits: “Sometimes, it is absolutely impossible for us to go any further without violating our oath; in this case we prefer to keep silent”.

Perhaps we can deduce that oath by intuition by reading an ancient manuscript kept in Venice. This manuscript quotes a formula in which the alchemist resolves, in the name of the Trinity, to reveal no essential principles of the doctrine, under pain of terrible divine punishment.   

Without going beyond the limit of delation, alchemists open their minds, to a greater or lesser extent, and in relation to this, they are defined envious or charitable, avaricious or prodigal. Envious or avaricious is he who tries, with every means, to lead the reader down a false track; charitable or prodigal is he who gives perhaps not many explanations, but those he gives are always true…Unfortunately, an exact subdivision in both the categories is not possible. Authors who are envious for pages and pages, can become charitable in some specific passages and, vice versa, charitable authors can conceal only one lie among many true things, but it is enough to distort the meaning of everything.

It is not unusual for an alchemic treatise to begin with the promise to reveal all necessary information with the greatest sincerity and clarity as does Arnaldus Villanovanus’s Rosarium Philosophorum: “The name of this book is Rosario, because it is a brief excerpt taken from the books of Philosophers, where nothing is hidden, nothing is misleading, nothing is diminished; but it contains everything that is necessary for the carrying out of our work”. Although the tone is sorrowful, the assertion is particularly envious, because no alchemic treatise, including Villanovanus’s Rosarium, is written in such a way as to be considered completed; no treatise includes all the essential knowledge to successfully achieve the Magnum Opus. At the most, the exposition contains many details on some stages of the procedures and very vague on others. More frequently, whole passages are left out; almost always a particular technique is used: changing the chronological order of the single operations. Apparently the speech is logical and continuous, but, in fact, it contains several time discrepancies.

Moreover, identical substances and procedures are called with different names, while different things are defined with the same words. An ancient Philosopher warns: “Be careful, researchers of this science, that envious men tore apart the arcane in several pieces; and they dealt many waters, essences, bodies, stones, spirits in such a way as to devastate this precious art through the multiplication of all the names…” And Geber writes: “I want to say that, in my Summa, I did not want to teach our science continuously, and I have disseminated it here and there in several chapters…”

Apart from data dissemination, there are many other ways for hiding or veiling the truth. Among the more complex but less usual ones, there is cryptography, which consists in writing single words or whole sentences according to a particular key, sometimes on the basis of a specially built alphabet with hermetic signs, invented signs, a mixture of letters and numbers. A fine example of cryptography is the 15th century Codice De Oldanis, where there are some passages written according to an alphabet of 25 signs: 22 letters correspond to the twenty one Latin letters (the r is represented by two different signs), three signs have no meaning and they are used at the beginning, at the end or in the middle of a word, to increase the reader’s difficulty. Less avaricious authors use easier methods; for example, they write the names upside down, or add useless letters to the spelling of the words, or they cut words very short, aroph for aroma philosophorum. Of course, those who took away whole words, to replace them with others meaningless words, were very envious.

 The authenticity of a passage contained in Roger Bacon’s De Secretis operibus artis et naturae is uncertain. It hides a fundamental recipe for making gunpowder (potassium nitrate, charcoal, sulphur) in an anagram. The passage sounds like this: “Sed tamen salis petrae luru vopo vir can utri et sulphuris; et sic facies tonitrum et coruscationem si scias artificium”. Anagramming the sentence, luru vopo vir canutri, we obtain R. VII PART. V NOV.: CORUL. V:, which is the abbreviation of “recipe VII partes, V novellae coruli V”.

Thus, the whole sentence becomes: “But, however, take seven parts of salis petrae, five parts of young hazeltree, five of sulphur; and so, if you know the artifice, you will make thunder and lightning”. Fulcanelli, never so charitable, gave lengthy explanations on phonetic qabbalah, on the basis of which, to understand the meaning of a word, we must consider the sound of the group of letters rather than orthography, which disguises it.

The phonetic qabbalah can explain, for example, why the alchemists often referred to Saint Christopher’s legend, the giant that carried the young Christ on his shoulders across a flooded river. According to Greek etymology, “Christopher” means “He who carries the Christ”, but, in alchemy, in phonetic assonance, it becomes “Chrisopher”, that is “He who carries gold”. “It is,” Fulcanelli says, “the hieroglyphic of the solar sulphur, or the rising gold (Jesus), raised onto mercurial waves and then led by the very energy of this Mercury to become the Elixir”. On other occasions, the resort to the phonetic qabbalah leads Fulcanelli to wilder speculations. If, sometimes, the logic is inadequate and the straining evident, the reader must understand that what is more important is not the philological rigour of the reasoning, but what the philosopher is trying to say between the lines on the pretext of phonetic qabbalah.

In “Mysteries of the Cathedrals”, Fulcanelli also reveals the perfidious case of an alchemic enigma engraved on a wall. In the chapel of Lallemant Palace, in Bourges, in a niche dating from 16th century, “RERE, RER” is repeated three times. On the fronton there are three igneous pomegranates. According to Fulcanelli, the key is in the indication to repeat three times the calcination of the philosophical sulphur (as indicated by the igneous pomegranates). As for the mysterious words, he explains: “RE, Latin ablative of res, means the thing materially considered; as it regards the word RERE, it comes from the putting together of RE, one thing, and RE, another thing, the translation is two things in one, or a double thing; therefore RERE is equivalent to REBIS”. Unfortunately, after some further explanation on the Rebis, Fulcanelli becomes avaricious and says that he cannot be so clear in explaining the other word, RER. Nevertheless, as R is half of RE, RER is one thing plus half of another one or of its own (R).


The alchemists use a great quantity of the symbols to hide, at least partially, the doctrine: “So do the chemical Philosophers:” it is written in the book  Dell’imprese, “they hide important teaching under eagles, dragons, tears, virgin’s milk, the moon, the sun, marriages, mountains, to resuscitate, the spirit and the soul. This was done because it was not convenient that noble matters were understood by all the fools, because they would be despised and derided and philosophy would be considered madness.”

Many symbols draw on the animal world and form a crowded bestiary in which there are both mythical beings, like the phoenix or the unicorn, and real beings.

Astrology contributes fundamentally to increase the patrimony of hermetic symbolism. The relationship planets = divinities = metals goes back to the earliest antiquity and it entered into alchemy with the by then common relationship: Sun (Apollo) = aurum (gold); Moon (Diana) = argentum (silver); Mercury = argentum vivum or quicksilver (mercury); Venus = cuprum (copper); Mars = ferrum (iron); Jove = stannum (tin); Saturn = plumbum (lead). The twelve zodiacal signs are exactly reflected in the phases of the Magnum Opus, especially in the periods of the year in which they take place: “The zodiac of the Philosophers,” writes Abbot Pernety, “is not the same as the celestial zodiac, although the first one has an important relationship with the second. The signs of the Philosophers are the procedures of the Opus that must be performed to reach their autumn, the last season of their year, because it is the one in which Philosophers gather the fruits of their work”.

Among the other symbols of a different nature, there are a few dozen that frequently recur.

In the sphere of the symbolism there are also some illustrations that hardly have a purely ornamental value. These illustrations are built as an appendix to the texts and use every kind of symbol. As a whole, they are read almost like a rebus. Indeed, there is a book of alchemy made up only of illustrations, the Mutus liber, that describes the achievement of the Magnum Opus in fifteen tables. They represent a man and a woman, who work both in a laboratory, at the athanor (a tower-shaped oven) and in the open, in the fields, to collect precious cosmic influences. Over the centuries, many authors have attempted to explain the Mutus liber, but their explanations are often so strongly contrasting that they cannot to be considered definitive.

Elements, bodies and operations are represented with conventional signs. We know very little about their origin, but it seems they were unknown at dawn of Latin alchemy, but currently used from the middle of the 15th century.

After their first apparition, alchemical signs become more and more complicated and numerous, without, however, being a further element of ambiguity. In point of fact, the tables, that constitute the corresponding meaning, were of current use. In 18th century the list of signs was so numerous that the tables contained in Diderot and d’Alembert’s Encyclopedia included about five hundred of them. Nevertheless, a much greater perspicacity was used by the alchemists in their interpretation of mythology and sacred history, and in making allegoric representations of the Magnum Opus. The biblical vicissitudes of the prophet Elijah, abducted and taken to the skies in a cart of fire, is used in alchemy books to represent the alchemist that has realized the work and transmuted himself. Also the creation of Adam is assimilated to the alchemical Opus, because God drew Adam out of the mud in the same way as alchemist draws the Philosophers’ Stone from an original base substance. We can find a comparison between Christ, born of the Virgin Mary, and the Lapis (Philosophers’ Stone), born of Mercurial Water, already in the first Latin Alchemy and it leads to interpreting the whole Christian mystery hermetically.

The masterpiece of this school of thought is the Aurora consurgens, written at the beginning of the 14th century. In the Aurora the Holy Scriptures becomes a pretext to explain parables that, in reality, have an alchemical meaning.

The Symbola aureae mensae was written in 1617 and illustrates Alchemy as the Mass: the priest that officiates at the altar is the alchemist that works at the athanor; the Philosophers’ Stone is like the host, source of grace and eternal life; the elixir obtained from the Magnum Opus is like the Eucharistic wine; the transmutation of the base metal into gold takes place in the same way in which the host changes into the Body of Christ.

 The same process is used on Greek mythology. Theseus, who fights in the labyrinth of Knossos is the alchemist who fights the difficulties of the Magnum Opus. He only escaped thanks to Ariadne’s thread, that is the necessary secret knowledge that supplies the key for carrying out the work. Daedalus and Icarus, who, according to the myth, escape from the labyrinth by using wings of wax, represent volatile substance. Nevertheless, the peak of the alchemist’s attention to the Greek myths is reached in the interpretation of the vicissitudes of Jason and the Golden Fleece.

The Golden Fleece, the possession of which gives abundance, is the Philosophers’ Stone; Jason, who sails on the ship Argus, is the alchemist who undertakes the humid way; the hero’s labours are allegories of the operations to be fulfilled to complete the Opus.

 To explain this and other myths in the light of the alchemy, Abbot Pernety (1716-1801) wrote the Revealed Greek and Egyptian fables. The author himself, to facilitate the comprehension of the treaties of alchemy, also compiled the Mythical-hermetic dictionary, which is by no means a model of clarity, because many words have too vague or too obscure meanings.

Sometimes, the allegory is contained in the whole text and not only in some passages. Enigmatic Notebook Drawings was written at the beginning of the 15th century with the signature of Parisian scribe Nicolas Flamel. It is a real and documented autobiography, which hides a description of the mystical development of the author. In the central part of the narration, Flamel recalls how one day a very old, wide and golden manuscript of alchemy came into his possession; it was made up of three groups each of seven sheets.

After having vainly studied its content for several years, he decides to go on a pilgrimage to St. James of Compostela, in Spain, to ask for the grace to make a correct interpretation. Having done this, on his return journey, he met a merchant from Bologna, a Jewish convert, Mastro Canches. In his company, Flamel concluded the voyage towards France, but on arriving, his Jewish friend died. Before dying, however, he revealed the meaning of the strange book. After another three years of study and work, Flamel succeeded in transmuting himself for the first time.


After having vainly studied its content for several years, he decides to go on a pilgrimage to St. James of Compostela, in Spain, to ask for the grace to make a correct interpretation. Having done this, on his return journey, he met a merchant from Bologna, a Jewish convert, Mastro Canches. In his company, Flamel concluded the voyage towards France, but on arriving, his Jewish friend died. Before dying, however, he revealed the meaning of the strange book. After another three years of study and work, Flamel succeeded in transmuting himself for the first time.

For a long time it was debated whether the scribe Nicolas Flamel, who really existed in Paris between the end of the 14th and the beginning of the 15th century, was indeed the Enigmatic Notebook Drawings’ author. For the followers of alchemy the question is not relevant. It is only the hidden meaning that counts. The manuscript - old, wide and made of gold - symbolizes an ancient and very deep knowledge of metals.

The twenty one sheets are the seven alchemical operations to be repeated three times. The pilgrimage to Compostela is the allegory of the way to be followed, in order to be illuminated. This can be reached through faith and devotion. The trio Flamel-Bolognese merchant-Mastro Canches is the dissolution of raw material. Likewise, also other elements of the biography can be interpreted as allegories.


In the history of the alchemical literature the instruments adopted to hide the contents increase together with the greater number of writings produced. Of course, this was absolutely necessary, if we consider that oral tradition, the transmission of knowledge from master to disciple, became rarer. We can presume that, when the teaching and the personal contacts become an exception, the masters felt it necessary to commit their knowledge in writing form.




They took care, however, to hide its keys. An unwise or hurried reader would have caught only a glimpse of the marvels of the alchemical garden. All knowledge should be reserved for the reader who deserved it through a patient meditation carried out daily and inspired by the following alchemical motto: “Pray, read, read, read, read again, work and you will find”. Actually, a difficult access to knowledge does not serve only to keep curious and unworthy people away, but it is also an ideal instrument to modify the reader’s mindset, by interrupting his logical order and activating, in obscure regions of his conscience, the unique things which permit him to understand the essence of the Magnum Opus.


The breakage of the rational level as the essential means to access illumination, the state in which everything has sense, is the same strategy followed by Zen and other esoteric doctrines. The more difficult code to be interpreted is not the one external to the text: when present, it can be reconstructed, although with difficulty. The real code, the one making a text impenetrable, is the non-conventional code emerging, naturally, from the reality which it conceals. According to Butor: “It is vane, then, to investigate which aspect of symbolism is bound to divert. Everything diverts and reveals at the same time.”




Albedo (whitening) and nigredo (blackening): two stages of the Magnum Opus.

 Dry way and humid way: the two ways in which the Magnum Opus can be fulfilled. The dry way is short and dangerous, the humid way is longer and safe.

Elixir: together with the Philosophers’ Stone, it is the final product of the Magnum Opus. Allegedly, it has the power to renew vital energies.

Fixed: that does not sublime or evaporate.

 Hermetism: the group of doctrines attributed to Hermes Trismegistus, mythical founder of alchemy.

Magnum Opus: set of operations which the alchemist has to fulfil to achieve his aim.

Philosopher = Alchemist

 Philosophers’ Stone: with the Elixir, it is the final product of the Magnum Opus. Allegedly, it can transmute substances.

Rebis: a body that, although single, is made up of male and female or, however, of two opposite things.

Salt, Sulphur and Mercury: the three principles which, according to alchemy, combining in different ways, form different substances. However, they do not coincide with what we normally refer to as salt, sulphur and mercury.

 Transmutation: the final aim of alchemy. This term has to be interpreted in two ways: as the possibility for the operator to transform a substance into another substance at will, or as the possibility, for the operator, to transform himself on a spiritual level.

 Volatile: that sublimes or evaporates by fire.



Burckhardt T. : Alchemy, Element Books, 1986.

Butor M.: L 'alchimia e il suo linguaggio, in "Repertorio", Ed. il Saggiatore, Milano 1951.

Carbonelli G.: Sulle fonti della chimica e dell'alchimia in Italia, Ed. Istituto Serono, Roma 1925.

Andrea De Pascalis:  L’Arte Dorata : storia illustrata dell’Alchimia, L’Airone, 1995.

Evola J.: The Hermetic Tradition Inner Traditions, Rochester (VM), 1993.

Flamel N.: His Exposition of the Hieroglyphicall Figures, Garland Publishing, 1994.

Fulcanelli: Mystery of the Cathedrals, Aims International Books.

Pernety AJ.: Dictionnaire mytho-hermetique, Paris, Bauche, 1758.

Pernety A.J.: Les Fables égyptiennes et grecques dévoilées... Paris,1786.

Read. J.: From Alchemy To Chemistry, Dover Publications, 1995.



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