So it was back to Treadwells last weekend, for a sparky alchemical adventure, or workshop entitled 'Advanced Herbal Alchemy'. Not being sure if we were quite at the advanced stage of herbal alchemy - in fact not being sure exactly what it was - we crammed all information we could muster about herbs and planetary correspondances on the train up to London. But we needn't have worried. Paul, the lecturer, was very friendly and though assuming background knowledge in herbalism he explained the precise system he was teaching us from the very beginning.
And a fascinating system it was. Again in the basement of the bookshop off Covent Garden, this time complete with mini-stove on which to carry out alchemical processes, we learnt how to reduce plants to their basic, alchemical components and then recombine them into healing essences. The workshop began with the clarification that alchemy was more than the foolish begins of science, that in fact it had contributed, even in the twentieth century, to many significant discoveries that 'science' in the typical sense, missed out on. But then, rather than move on to a discussion of my understanding of 21st century alchemy - a psychological and spiritual process - Paul took the workshop along a different track, the alchemy of plant.
He dismissed the gold/lead question from the very beginning. From his perspective, any alchemist - and he said this with the assumption of their being a still existent species - must begin with plants, and only later, perhaps, can move onto the more advanced and hazy field of metallic alchemy.
The theory of plant alchemy seems pretty clear, at least if I understood it. Any alchemical transformation begins with a break down of the substance into its basic essences, so that it can then be reformed into a purified state. First death, then re-birth. The ancient alchemists believed that the world was made up of three essences: Mercury, Sulphur and Salt. These three essences can be related to the three principles of Spirit, Soul and Body.
To alchemise a plant, then, what you do is break it down into Spirit, Soul and Body. How, exactly? Well, in biological terms, you can relate Mercury (spirit) to alcohol, sulphur (soul) to oil and salt (body) to - well - salt. Because spirit is a universal, you can add any near pure alcohol to your herbal mixture. Then you simply have to extract the oil and the salt, a process which involves at least three months careful and patient work, ideally with a clay furnace, in practise, a barbeque could do. At the end, if you're successful, you end up with a potent and clear liquid that can be used as an infusion in tea or a glass of water. The effect it has is related to the planet to which that herb corresponds. We were working with star anise, which is a herb of Jupiter, and thus the benefits of the final product are related to Jupiter's qualities - Prosperity, Wealth, Honour, Strength etc. This was the only bit I felt lacked clarity - surely the effects of an individual herb are far more specific than their general planetary correspondances? (But perhaps if I'd been to a basic herbal workshop first I would have been more clear on this point!)
What was great about the workshop was that we were told on a clear and practical level how to carry it out at home, (in Paul's words, Kitchen Alchemy) and then we got to do it ourselves. Paul produced a dark jar of vodka steeped star anise, which we crushed and then burnt in a saucepan to fill the basement with a wonderfully thick and pungent smoke. At the end of the workshop we had a glass of thick, earthy liquid, which was added to a glass of water and then passed around to sip. We also added some to bottles of water and took them home with us. Eurik and I proudly bought our bottle of Jupiter-water back to Ditchling and offered it to the family with the promise of enhanced prosperity.
I'm not entirely convinced that wealth will fall out of the sky now we've finished off our bottle of star anise water. But this was a weak infusion made as a demonstration in a workshop. While I have a natural tendency to be sceptical about these things, the very time and care that must be given to one of these herbal preparations, the hours spent taking care of the calcinating plant under the embers, like a bird hatching her eggs, necessitates a deep personal involvement with the process; in fact mediation on each stage of the process is a natural and expected part.
Later in the process, if you have the equipment necessary, you can distill your product, referred to in alchemical terminology as 'letting seven eagles fly'. This (I think) is the plant essence reaching to heaven and then returning back down to earth, cyclically, until it reaches an enhanced stage of purification. It is here that you meditate on your wish reaching from the heavens to the earth, becoming a part of both planes.
Ideally, you take at least three months to produce even a small vial of liquid. It's the very opposite of 'instant cure', not just because it takes time, but because it's something you are spiritually involved in the creation of, not something you buy over the counter. This is one of the things I love about alchemy, the interweaving of down to earth scientific processes with spiritual work. And it was a real pleasure to see a practical demonstration of how it can, in fact, in 2007, be done.