Lesson 7) Off to Emerald City

Hello again my young alchemists in training! I'm pleased to see your progress so far on your transmutations. I can even tell that some of you have been done for a while so you're itching to turn in that last log! Well, that won't be for a while so do hold on to them for the time being.

Today we will be going over two broad concepts that are centric to the understanding of Hermeticism. Let’s start!


Our first order of business today is the First Matter, also translated as Prima Materia in Latin. Does it sound familiar? Why I would hope so because we briefly talked about it in Year Three! The First Matter is actually the most confusing concept in alchemy and even alchemists tend to have a difficult time defining and explaining it. There are at least two hundred different descriptions of it in medieval writings. The Lexicon of Alchemy (1612 edition) has over eighty definitions for it. The definitions range anywhere from the four aspects, to bodily fluids such as blood and urine, to philosophical ideals like imagination and love. Judging by how big the range of definitions is, you may wonder if the First Matter even exists.

What makes the First Matter so hard to pin down is that it's everything, yet it's also nothing all at once. It's a primal substance that existed before time, even before the chaos described ahead of the Great Work. The First Matter carries the seeds of all existing things from the past and present as well as everything that will exist in the future. This cosmic force seems completely impossible to obtain. Yet there were many alchemists who made finding the First Matter the main subject of their work. Some tried to extract it from metals, others collected morning dew, and then there were some who explored underground mines in the hopes of finding it. Alchemists searched everywhere for the First Matter, including their own bodies, minds, and souls.

If you are taking Ancient Runes this year, this next bit may interest you. The Egyptians denoted the First Matter with the hieroglyph, kh. This hieroglyph is the first one used to make the word khem, which was used in the word Al-khemia meaning "from the Land of Khem." In other words, it means that alchemy came from the Land of Egypt. Strangely enough, it's the only hieroglyph that no traditional Egyptologist is confident on the meaning of. The First Matter was also interpreted differently depending on the culture. In China, philosophers believed that the First Matter was the Tao. Western alchemists depicted it as the ouroboros. Hermetic alchemists believe that the First Matter is the fabric of our universe.

Although there are several definitions of what the First Matter could be, there are common characteristics used by alchemists through the ages to help identify the substance. These properties also indicate ways of accumulating and transforming it, and we will be looking at five of them today. There are definitely more properties than these five, these tend to be the most common conceptions of the First Matter.

The first property is the cyclic nature of the First Matter, meaning that it's regularly repeated. Its cyclic nature is commonly accepted by both Eastern and Western alchemists. The First Matter is in a constant pattern of transformation. It's as light as it is dark and it manifests itself in everything around us as much as it doesn't have a presence at all. This is represented in the West by the ouroboros, while the East relates it to Tai Chi or the Yin-Yang diagram. You should be familiar with both of these concepts already. The ouroboros is a cycle in which a snake is eating its own tail, whereas in the theory of Yin and Yang, a little bit of the opposing side is within the other and they are constantly transitioning into each other.

The second property is that the First Matter is eternal. It's impossible to create or destroy the First Matter, it can only be transformed. The amount of it in the universe is permanent, fixed, and time cannot touch it. Modern alchemists actually associate it with dark matter. In physics, dark matter can't be detected, yet it makes up most of the universe. Dark matter itself makes up the basic structure of the universe and billions of dark matter particles go through our bodies every second.

The First Matter is present everywhere because it's the source of all things. In order to locate this substance in its purest form, you need to search for the liminal location, a Twilight Zone type area, between manifested and unmanifested reality. The liminal location is this gray area where the normal boundaries of reality fade away. The magical possibilities of these boundaries are available to us at any time. However in order to access these possibilities, you need to break down mundane preconceptions and view the world as the alchemists saw it. One prime example of a liminal location is Platform Nine-and-Three-Quarters at King's Cross Station. For those who have been familiar with the magical world their whole lives, this may not seem like such a big deal. However, for people who are more familiar with the Muggle world, the experience of being suddenly thrown into a completely different platform by running through a column is more confounding. This is all possible due to the First Matter. That moment where you're between platforms Nine and Ten at King's Cross Station and the platform where you board the Hogwarts Express is the liminal location.

The First Matter contains all the elements, or actually all components of creation. This includes the four aspects and aether. There is a belief that the physical form the First Matter takes when it manifests in the material world depends on the proportions of the four aspects at that time. Some alchemists practice manipulating the aspects in a metal's First Matter in order to transmute it.

A common belief is that the First Matter is the source of the Philosopher's Stone. Zosimos of Panopolis himself stated that once the First Matter is purified and known, it becomes the Stone. This may or may not be completely true considering that the Stone is hard to make plus there are several different theories on how it's made. However, does the First Matter have a role in creating the Stone? I personally believe so, but I don't think it's the only substance used to make the Stone.

Although there is laboratory work associated with extracting the First Matter from metals, we're primarily focusing on spiritual alchemy this year rather than practical. However, we will visit the laboratory in a future year to work with the First Matter. In a psychological sense, the First Matter is the same as the dark, irrational forces within the subconscious mind. The First Matter within us contains the necessary energy and dynamic oppositions to propel us through our transformation in the Great Work. That's right, the First Matter is the matter needing to be transformed that I have been hinting at all along.

The First Matter within us is located within the human mind, which as you all know by now, is where the Great Work takes place. Instead of being in a physical laboratory, your mind serves as an inner laboratory used to transform the hermetically sealed vessel containing the First Matter. This vessel, when sealed, keeps all the potentially dangerous matter inside. How is it dangerous? The energy the First Matter produces is capable of generating enormous amounts of all kinds of negative energies in the personality. These energies need to be worked on without contaminating the rest of the personality or interfering with normal everyday functions. In this sense, it's very difficult to get through the Great Work because when the observation of your own mental and emotional processes intensifies, the more the pressure within this vessel builds. This is where the physical processes and the spiritual processes overlap. In order to extract the First Matter from a metal, you need a lot of heat. The introspection of your mind is a metaphorical heat in which this vessel is cooking.

After the introspection, there is a lot of "liquid" leftover, meaning emotions and feelings. One must separate themselves from their emotions and work with the fire in order to move on. When liquid meets heat, it evaporates, therefore separating the emotions. The same process happens within the mind as the emotional energy is driven off, also removing the original impurities and leaving a purer version of the self as a base to work with through the rest of the phases. This step of recognizing the First Matter within yourself and being able to isolate yourself from it is the first thing that needs to be done before proceeding with the Great Work.


You cannot talk about Hermetic alchemy, or even Hermes Trismegistus, without mentioning the Emerald Tablet. The tablet, said to have been written by Hermes Trismegistus himself, is the foundation of Hermetic art and tradition. It's a highly revered cryptic artifact within the alchemical community that's said to contain numerous secrets, such as the transmutation of the First Matter, the creation of the Philosopher's Stone, the relationship between macrocosm and microcosm, the Great Work, and even actual laboratory experiments. Most of the background information I’m about to go over is simply a review from Year Three!

In Egypt, Thoth, the god of knowledge and writing, was also referred to as the Father of Alchemy and many other disciplines. The Egyptians considered him to be the first scribe, since he invented language and writing. Many of the teachings during the ancient Egyptian civilization were said to have been authored by him. Hundreds of thousands of books later, the Great Flood came and covered the Earth. As we all know, books and water aren't exactly a good mix. In order to preserve all of his writings, Thoth was said to have concealed them in two giant pillars known as the Pillars of Hermes. The pillars were rediscovered thousands of years later, one discovered outside the city of Heliopolis and the other found near Thebes. 

So why were these massive pillars named after Hermes instead of Thoth? That's because the Greeks came along and gave Thoth a new name, Hermes Trismegistus, who was a priest, philosopher, and an alchemist. Wait, wasn't Thoth a god? That really depends on which perspective you're looking at. The line between fact and myth has always been blurred in alchemical history. The Egyptians indeed considered Thoth a divine being. However, others have considered him to be a real person, an alien, a survivor from the lost continent of Atlantis, and many other things. Many alchemists in the wizarding world believed Hermes Trismegistus to be a powerful wizard who lived for centuries and traveled around the world. Considering he's one of the three greatest alchemists in history, it wouldn't be a surprise if he indeed found the secret to immortality.

When the Pillars of Hermes were discovered, an artifact was found among the sea of ancient texts contained within the columns: the Emerald Tablet. This gorgeous green tablet contained this cryptic script that was said to be a summary of Thothian writings and outlined a philosophy of the whole universe. Something with this much knowledge simply couldn't be shared with everybody, so the priests of Amun hid the tablet amongst other manuscripts. References to the Emerald Tablet were found in other writings such as the Book of the Dead, the Papyrus of Ani, and An Invocation to Hermes. The tablet was hidden so well that no one knew about it until Alexander the Great came, conquered Egypt, and became Pharaoh in 332 B.C.E. He traveled to Siwa and took the tablet and the Thothian writings with him to Memphis and Hermopolis.

What happened to the Emerald Tablet after that? Alexander the Great took the treasures he found in the Pillars of Hermes with him when he left Egypt in 331 B.C.E. He buried the texts in an underground cavern in Cappadocia, Anatolia (Turkey). Afterwards, he led a conquest from Babylonia to Egypt but died on the return trip in 323 B.C.E. Hundreds of years later, a young boy named Balinas was exploring the caves outside of Tyana in 32 C.E. and happened to discover the ancient texts. Balinas took a five-year vow of silence, read the texts, and sought an education from teachers that were well-versed in Hermetic philosophy. He became a renowned healer under the name Apollonius of Tyana. He moved to Alexandria and returned the Emerald Tablet to the Great Library of Alexandria in 70 C.E. According to some reports, the tablet was buried in a vault on the Giza plateau sometime around 400 C.E., however no one has ever been able to find it. There are several GGD (Great, Gold, and Danger) pyramids in the area that the tablet could possibly be in, however the curse-breaking teams that are sent in to them never come out alive.

There have been several translations of the tablet; the oldest one known to Muggles is in Arabic (circa 700 C.E.) and the first Latin translation appeared in 1140 C.E. Like I said previously with deciphering symbols, there is no right translation. The best way to understand the Emerald Tablet is to read it and take a moment to understand what it means to you before even thinking about looking at other translations. Almost every medieval alchemist had their own version of the Emerald Tablet after Albertus Magnus caused the text to spread like wildfire by releasing several translations. Although the tablet is supposedly a summary of Hermes’ and Thoth's teachings, the broad range of topics that are said to be in it are mostly attributed to the amount of different translations over the years.




The picture above is an engraving titled "Tabula Smaragdina," by Matthieu Merian. Tabula Smaragdina is Latin for "Emerald Tablet" and the engraving was first published in Daniel Mylius's Opus Medico-Chymicum in 1618. The Tabula Smaragdina expresses the basic principles in the Emerald Tablet using Hermetic symbolism. Considering we have recently gone over symbolism, I figured this would be a cool way to explain the tablet's contents.

Notice the obvious split between the Above and Below sections. The Above section represents the spiritual realm of light and divine union. The Below section is the material world of matter and duality. In the Above section, there are two suns rising over the horizon. The slightly larger sun is the One Mind, which delves into a completely different subject that we will be getting to in more detail in a couple lessons. The smaller sun is known as Mind the Maker, which is essentially the physical laws of this world or the mind of nature. This Hermetic concept is highly controversial. Talking about Mind the Maker in front of Muggles during the Middle Ages could have resulted in a sentence being burned at stake, as it implies that a higher ultimate god does not directly participate in our world. On the contrary, the Emerald Tablet does mention a god whose thoughts are represented by the faces of angels within the smaller sun. Alchemists sought to reveal and perfect the original divine light rather than outright reject the possibility of a higher being.

The Below section is further divided into left and right sections in order to symbolize the duality of our existence. The left section represents masculinity and the daytime realm of solar energy. The right embodies femininity and the nighttime realm of lunar energy. In the center is Hermes holding two starry axes. This is symbolic of Hermes cutting the chains that bind us to the physical world Below in order for us to realize the powers of the quintessential forces Above.

Now direct your attention to the heart of the engraving. That thing that looks like a bullseye target is a depiction of the One Thing of the universe. All of the different layers need to be peeled away in order to reveal the soul of matter or a hidden essence. The sphere contains several symbols we have gone over already such as the crow, swan, dragon, pelican, and phoenix as well as the symbols for the planets, primes, and elemental aspects. Look at how they all tie into the overall amalgamation of the universe. This is the Great Work as a whole.

If you would like to read the Emerald Tablet for yourself, I personally prefer this translation. Here's another site that has several different translations along with a brief section about possible origins of the tablet. Read it and think about what you believe it means. I'm not requiring this as an assignment, but it is a nice exercise to do, especially if you plan on pursuing Alchemy in the future.


That's all I have for today! You only have a short quiz for homework. I can't wait for all of you to see what I have planned for next week!

Alchemy isn't strictly scientific, it's spiritual too! This year will mainly focus on a branch of Alchemy developed from the teachings of Hermes Trismegistus. Learn how to seek your inner self and about the magnum opus itself!
Course Prerequisites:
  • ALCH-301

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