Lesson 1) The Universal Answer
Welcome back everyone from quite an interesting, but needed break! I'm glad to see some familiar faces around the classroom. You are all in Year Five now and that's quite hard for me to believe! It felt like yesterday you were all in my Second Year class and now here you are almost ready to take your O.W.L.s! Time sure does fly. As always, if you have any questions, feel free to send me an owl or email.
In the past, we have gone over the fundamentals of alchemy, alchemy in different cultures, and hermetic alchemy. This year, I would like to return to a more practical approach: medicinal alchemy. Besides actually creating gold, one of the main reasons people practiced alchemy was to heal ailments or improve bodily conditions. Going back to Year Three, this type of alchemy became popular in Europe around the Renaissance era. Medicinal alchemy is still practiced today in countries such as China and India among wizards and Muggles alike. This year, we will be exploring these techniques as well as alchemy in psychology and therapy.
The first thing I would like to talk about is alkahest. Alkahest is the long sought after universal solvent. It was said to be able to dissolve any substance, including gold. The actual definition of what this substance can actually do varies from alchemist to alchemist. The most commonly accepted one is that alkahest is a solvent that can reduce composed material to its component parts. I cannot even begin to imagine how helpful this would be in the laboratory. Using the alkahest would enable alchemists to break down potions, tinctures, and elixirs down into their respective components. Alchemists could then measure the proportions and create identical concoctions based on those measurements. Imagine accidentally creating the cure to dragon pox, but you have no idea how much of each ingredient you threw into your cauldron so you can never recreate the cure again. This is where alkahest would come in handy. Other alchemists even believed that alkahest could dissolve the potions into the absolute basic elements. This would open the door to discovering unknown elements.
The actual name "alkahest" was said to be coined by Paracelsus; however, no one's completely sure he really did. One theory mentions he may have modeled the word after the phrase "alkali est" which translates to "it is alkali." He could of also simply made up a word he thought sounded mysterious and vaguely Arabic. Paracelsus wrote several documents on alkahest and even believed that it was the Philosopher's Stone.
After Paracelsus, another great alchemist named Jan Baptist van Helmont picked up where he left off. Van Helmont was a disciple of Paracelsus and he claimed to have found alkahest. The substance van Helmont found is something he referred to as sal alkali and he claimed that it could dissolve any body into its first matter. Van Helmont even detailed an experiment he conducted when he applied the sal alkali to olive oil and the result was identified as sweet oil. Modern alchemists looked back at van Helmont's research. What he actually found wasn't a solvent at all, but a reagent that chemically attacked the materials. This essentially was a chemical that had the ability to reduce more materials than any previous substance; keep in mind that this was around the 1600's. Sal alkali turned out to be a solution of caustic lime, potassium carbonate, and alcohol and the sweet oil that was found was actually glycerol. He technically did discovered something, it just wasn't alkahest.
Besides the fact that alkahest is an obscure substance and hard to find, there's the problem of containing it. If it dissolves everything, how are you supposed to keep it in anything? One alchemist named Eirenaeus Philalethes refuted this concept and stated that alkahest only dissolved composed material into their constituent elemental parts. Another theory on a possible way to contain alkahest was to keep it in a flask made out of either a dragon's horn or hide. This potential solution was proposed by a Lithuanian alchemist and dragonologist named Daumantas. Dragon parts, especially the hide, are known for their resilience to potions and spells so the chance that it can withstand the effects of alkahest is very likely.
The next thing on our agenda is actually quite similar. Azoth is the universal medicine and it's said to be the cure to all diseases. Much like alkahest, Azoth is said to have been the goal of many alchemical works. The general term, Azoth, could be referring to either practical terms or spiritual terms. Obviously the practical reference aimed towards its medicinal properties. Ironically, our good friend Paracelsus, was said to have obtained it. There’s portraits of him carrying a sword with “Azoth” on the handle. It’s said he kept the Azoth in a concealed compartment within the handle in case he ran into a sticky situation. In manuscripts, he wrote that it was the counter poison to any threat, whether it was physical, mental, or spiritual.
Spiritually, Azoth is the universal life force - the animating spirit in all matter as well as the inspiration and enthusiasm that moves the mind. It is the main component within matter that is needed to actually make a transmutation of any type happen. It embodies all medicines and the first principles of all other substances. It is the force that gives us that drive towards perfection. The Azoth is definitely pretty powerful if you think about it. An occultist by the name of Aleister Crowley believed that the name Azoth represented the unity of the beginning and the end by taking the letters of the languages of antiquity. A, or Alpha/Alef, was the first letter of three different languages: Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. Z is the final letter in Latin. O, or Omega, is the final letter of Greek and Th, or Tau, is the final letter in Hebrew. Azoth comes in full circle and is considered “the fluid” of the universe.
Azoth is symbolized by the caduceus, which I’ve known you have seen before. The caduceus is the staff carried both by Hermes Trismegistus and the Greek messenger of the gods, Hermes. It’s depicted as a staff with two snakes intertwined around it. Occasionally it will also have wings. In alchemy, it’s often used as a symbol for the element Mercury or the first matter. In the context of it representing the first matter, the two snakes wrapped around the staff are said to be fighting the Chaos. The actual entwining itself is supposed to be an equilibrium of two opposing forces. This is where we come back to the Principle of Polarity we learned about last year. These opposing forces were seen as the sun and the moon, fixed and volatile, hot and cold, sulfur and mercury, and wet and dry. You might of also seen the caduceus mistakenly used as a symbol for medicine when the Rod of Asclepius, the deity of healing and medicine, should have been used instead.
That’s all I have for today! Prepare to use your Herbology skills next week!