Recurring thought patterns and resurfacing alchemical symbols in European, Hellenistic, Arabic, and Byzantine alchemy from antiquity to the Early Modern period

Angela Catalina Ghionea, Purdue University


This study explores the symbolic nature, cognitive origin, and historic implications of patterns of imagery abundant in alchemical writings of European, Hellenistic, Arabic and Byzantine origin. In so doing, it seeks to bring greater balance between exoteric and esoteric aspects of alchemy in the historiography of alchemy that recently has favored the former and largely ignored the latter. The lack of sufficient research of patterns of imagery in the history of alchemy constitutes the theoretical motivation of the study. Textual evidence is provided in support of the three-pronged thesis: imagery patterns in alchemical writings are largely induced by altered states of consciousness (ASC), reiterate older symbolic patterns, and recur across cultures for reasons previously unknown to historians. Under this interpretation, alchemical sources appear coherently structured and meaningful, which refutes earlier claims that the texts are semantically intractable, self-repeating gibberish. The study proposes the hypothesis that the set of imagery patterns generated during ASC resurfaces as the basic structure of symbols in remote prehistoric shamanism, early mythologies, Cabalistic philosophical theories, and alchemical allegories. The comparative investigation of creational myths, Cabalistic schools of thought and alchemical sources across millennia, demonstrate that these bodies of knowledge share a common pattern of imagery and a similar set of symbols. The study proposes that mind patterns are distinguished from symbols, in the sense that patterns are the basic structure from which symbols are generated. The results of this study reveal a complex network of relationships which place alchemical symbols in the middle of the cultural nexus of the fields of esotericisms and the history of alchemy – a complexity overlooked in the current scholarship which disproportionately emphasizes the exoteric aspects of the history of alchemy. The study also argues that symbols of the occult art of metamorphosis originate in Prehistory during shamanism-induced trance-like states. Both the symbols and the techniques to alter the state of consciousness have been preserved across centuries by European alchemists in the commonly used practices aimed at divining the secrets of nature and the universe. By "tapping" into the unconscious, alchemists encounter symbols which they attempt to interpret and describe in alchemical books and images. Gradually, a cultural cyclical process is set in motion, involving first the alchemist's exposure to alchemical symbols (through information present in books and plates), then the re-encounter with similar symbols during self-induced dreams, and finally the interpretation and reuse of the same symbols to further create new alchemical texts and art. During "the journey of the soul," the re-encounter with imagery similar to the one found in alchemical books and drawings confirms alchemists' expectations and cements their belief in the efficiency of alchemical symbols. The creative process of generation, rediscovery and reuse of alchemical symbols causes these symbols to evolve into an inventory constantly employed by alchemists. This process appeared beneficial because, on the one hand, the alchemists viewed it as a theory verification tool, and on the other hand it was an efficient method of encoding knowledge about perfecting human nature and base metals. The study demonstrates that alchemical symbols share a common origin with prehistoric art. It offers a new explanation and classification of alchemical symbols based on their pattern structure found in ASC. It uncovers the linear evolution of symbols as well as possible shifts of meaning in alchemy. It explains the rationale for alchemists to reuse these symbols, and demonstrates how alchemical symbols and theories have informed the history of alchemy.




Farr, Purdue University.

Subject Area

Science history

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