Many of the initiation visions seen by the shamans took similar forms to this, and the famous anthropologist Mercia Eliade has shown that they are closely related to the high priestly standing enjoyed by metalworkers among primitive peoples.
In some very early mythologies, the Sun was seen as plunging every evening into the womb of Earth, sowing the ‘seed’ of the metals. It was supposed that the metals gradually developed, passing through various stages, until the final result was gold. (We have seen how even the scientist Aristotle believed that the Earth somehow ‘bred’ metals — see page 954.)
Metalworkers, who knew how to take mineral ores and, by smelting them in a womb-shaped furnace, to produce metals, and who further understood how to shape the metal produced, were thus performing much the same kind of marvel as the Sun-god himself. They were venerated as priests who stood closer than ordinary men to the god.
It was natural to suppose that, if a man could make himself truly god-like, he would gain the power to transform baser metals into gold, by exactly the same processes that they underwent in the Earth. This belief was expressed on the Emerald Tablet, a record said to have been inscribed by the god Thoth, who was supposed to have taught the ancient Egyptians the sciences and the art of writing. (The Greeks identified Thoth with one form of their god Hermes — Hermes Trismegistos, the ‘thrice-great’. Hence the term ‘hermetic art’ for alchemy.)
The principle of the Emerald Tablet can be expressed in a phrase widely used by alchemists: ‘as above, so below’. The tablet appears to have carried a set of mystical instructions for the manufacture of gold by transmutation — the ‘operation of Sol’. The seventh of these precepts reads: ‘Separate the earth from the fire, the subtle from the gross, acting prudently and with judgement.’ The eighth reads: ‘Ascend with the greatest sagacity from the Earth to heaven, and then again descend to the Earth, and unite together the powers of things superior and things inferior. . . .’ These can be read as straightforward metaphors for separating and recombining elements. The ‘ascent’ and ‘descent’ could refer to the circulatory action of a kerotakis, a type of still.
But on another level these same precepts could be, and were, taken as referring to a spiritual work of self-purification — a long and arduous liberation of the divine part of the alchemist’s nature from the grossness of his body and senses.
All these various strands came together: the primitive belief that the search for a way to transmute base metals into gold involved a succession of god-like actions developed into the belief that an important part of alchemy was the attempt to become like God — ‘as above, so below’. From this, no doubt, stems the conviction that the final result of the alchemical quest was to achieve eternal life.
It is striking that, although there is no evidence of any connection between the alchemy of the Arabs (as it was later transmitted to medieval Europe) and that of the Far East, the Chinese alchemists were also concerned with the attainment of immortality. They were undoubtedly very interested in the production of gold, but principally for its value as an elixir. The substance with which they attempted to prolong life was cinnabar, a bright-red compound of two of the vital substances of western alchemy: mercury and sulphur.
The ancient philosophy of Tao is concerned with the delicate blending of two fundamental energies: yin, the feminine principle, and yang, the masculine. The careful commingling of yin and yang was believed to be a means of prolonging life.
At the lower levels of Taoist practice, the mixing of yin and yang could be achieved by controlled sexual intercourse; the more advanced mystics practised various meditative procedures, designed to bring about a kind of `distillation’ of yang within the body. These practices were commonly known as ‘sexual alchemy’.
The body was seen as a tier of three crucibles (tan-t’ien) on a central column. The lowest, the cauldron or three-footed furnace, was in the belly below the solar plexus; the second was behind the solar plexus; the third between the eyes.
The ‘prime substance’ of this inner alchemy was the primitive sexual energy, thing, residing in the lowest crucible. It was one of three forces, the others being ch’i, the moving vitality, in the middle crucible and Shen, the luminous personal spirit, in the upper crucible. Meditation began with rhythmical deep breathing: the ‘heavenly fire of the heart’ began to circulate and was impelled — as if by a bellows — down to the furnace in the belly. Gradually, as energy rose up the ‘distillation column’ of the spine, the content of yang increased; then, as it condensed at the top of the head and descended again, yin replaced yang. Eventually, the heat of the furnace was sufficient to drive the ching, transformed, up to the second crucible, where it combined with the ch’i. As in the alchemist’s vessel known as a pelican, the two were continuously recycled, rising up the central column and then dropping back into the furnace for further purification. As the furnace was fanned to greater heat, the combined ching and ch’i eventually reached the shen in the upper crucible; and suddenly the ‘inner copulation of the dragon and the tiger’ took place. Su Tung P’o put it this way in AD I Ili):
The dragon is mercury. It is the semen and the blood. He issues from the kidneys and is stored in the liver. The tiger is lead. He is breath and bodily strength. He issues from the mind and the lungs bear him. When the mind is moved, breath and strength act with it. When the kidneys are flushed, then semen and blood flow. . . .
When the ching-ch’i-shen was rising and descending like liquid in a briskly bubbling still, it progressively purified until it was one with the energies of the cosmos. Then a special ambrosial fluid flowed like saliva in the mouth. Two lights, gold and silver, slowly descended into the furnace; the body’s breathing ceased, to be replaced by the breathing of a foetus formed from the impregnation of the ambrosia by the gold and silver lights. Slowly, the foetus grew into a homunculus, a ‘crystal child’; it rose slowly to the crown of the head, and was there born as an immortal.